The Royal Family & The Poor: An Interview with Arthur McDonald

By Flint MichiganThe only explicitly situationist band on the Factory label, The Royal Family & The Poor culled together conceptual art stratagems, unrehearsed punk and lacerating social critique into a devastating cocktail. Flint Michigan talks to ‘singer' Prince Brian aka Arthur McDonald and finds out why nothing this good ever lasts , 21 September 2010


It's pretty much accepted that Factory records was one of the foremost popularisers of the Situationist International. From naming their club The Hacienda to flashing the SI Anthology on a TV documentary to, so it has been reported, encouraging various Factory band members to read Debord's Society of the Spectacle, Tony Wilson, like Malcolm Mclaren and Bob Last of Fast Product, seemed to be on a mission to subvert youth with mutant pop and heavily signified artifacts. Of all the outfits on the label in its early years none was more explicitly situationistic than the first line-up of The Royal Family & The Poor. Beginning as a duo between Arthur McDonald and Mike Keane, who met as participants in the Prem Rawat Foundation in Liverpool, the line up extended to include bassist Nathan McGough and drummer Phil Hurst. Enticing Wilson's obvious interest the group were booked into Graveyard Studios where they laid down some stringent proto-punk-funk tracks as backing to Arthur McDonald's laconically acerbic lyrics. On one such track Arthur read verbatim sections from Vaneigem's The Revolution of Everyday Life with such a composed yet angry intonation that it figured as an interpretation, a translation of a form of theoretical language that most '80s teenagers hadn't been exposed to. On ‘Death Factory' it was the turn of guitarist Mike Keane to spontaneously improvise the lyrics.


Image: Arthur during the performance

Together with ‘Rackets', these tracks found their way on to one side of the double album A Factory Quartet together with tracks by Durutti Column, Kevin Hewick and Blurt. Yet coupled to The Royal Family & The Poor's popularisation of theoretical language as ‘poetry without poems' there was a pronounced stance against musical cliché. The synth/drum filler track ‘Dirge' starts as classic factory atmosphere yet descends into an out-of-tune, out of rhythm mélange: a kind of regression that gleefully embraces incompetence. Playing live, even at such showcase gigs as the Factory at the Moonlight series, were not seen as opportunities to impress the status quo, but as another opportunity to learn-in-public that was as sophisticatedly sincere as the angry yet knowingly nonchalant intonation of the lyrics. A snapshot from the '80s music press says it all:

The Royal Family know nothing about music, but probably read a lot of books. Their performance was apparently improvised....The singer wore a long black overcoat and shaggy hair. He has adopted the mantle of Prince Brian. Brian's forte is declaiming ‘provocative' sentences, usually with his back to a grateful audience... He vouchsafed that ‘All politics is fascism' and went well beyond his level of competence in claiming that ‘Every man and woman is a star'.

No. The NME was not always the hothouse of zeitgeist responsiveness it was cracked up to be. It also housed the unendingly familiar media-mindset of refusing to countenance what it could neither feel nor understand. In total contrast to these revealingly malign words it was reported by Nathan McGough that Joy Division had thought The Royal Family & The Poor's Dada-inspired performance at the Moonlight was great. As with Crawling Chaos, that other much misrepresented Factory act, the nether regions of post-punk contain molecules of trauma which still have the power to disalign us from the seductions of local celebrity and the blank surfaces of an overdesigned living. As Arthur McDonald wrote recently ‘Ian Curtis was the ghost but in truth Ian was the reality and Factory management had become the ghosts'.

What follows is an edited and annotated email exchange with Arthur McDonald co-founder of The Royal Family & The Poor.

Image: ‘Love won’t tear us apart’. Teresa in the early '80s


I first discovered situationist publications when I started the fine art course at Newcastle University in 1968. They were on the socialist society bookstall. There was also a pro-situationst group of final year art students that organised demos and meetings almost as soon as I walked in the door. The art department demos were mini-occupational: red and black flags; barbed-wire blockade sculptures; ‘under the paving stones, the beach' slogans painted on the walls. The most striking memory I have of these days was of a red-haired ‘pre-Raphaelite' girl advocating revolution at one of the students meetings. In May '68 there were news items on the TV about the riots and strikes in Paris. My interest in Surrealism was quickly updated with minimal conceptual and situationist modernism.

Some reforms were made to the course and basically you could do whatever you wanted in the last two years. My final year exhibition in 1972 was essentially art student conceptual art: a black silkscreen canvas containing the written longitude and latitude of the exact location in which the painting was made. Bryan Ferry had finished the course in 1966 and Richard Hamilton had left about the same time for London. Tony Wilson was at Cambridge or Oxford at the same time I was at Newcastle. Conceptual art was becoming fashionable in the art magazine Studio International and artists were starting to publish their own magazines. They never went the whole hog like the situationists though.

The Art & Language group (Lisson Gallery) put out their Corrected Slogans LP a year or two before we formed The Royal Family & The Poor and Lawrence Weiner was making records, videos, mini-books, posters etc. These were all based on his little language works. These ‘statements' (and later on Martin Creed's numbered works - Work 1, Work 2, Work 3) resemble the way Tony Wilson numbered the Factory Records artifacts as Fac1, Fac2, Fac3. Art & Language had an aversion to anything Situationist International and the other conceptual artists and their curator/art journalist friends gave the situationists little credit. In the late '70s Factory Records put the whole cake on the table of existence.

Image: Plato’s Ballroom Ticket – 25/3/1981

Don Tonay

Tony Wilson was a very intelligent man. He knew all about Lawrence Weiner's art. I would say Tony was, in fact, the best conceptual artist. Factory became the ‘modern art context': the records, videos, books, events etc. of Factory reached the elite and the street. The Factory ‘art objects' were richer in expression than the expensive standard art world conceptual works while using the same ‘distribution methods': magazine articles, videos, posters. This remains true all the way through the '80s and ‘90s before Saatchi, Hirst and the YBAs - during their rise and afterwards. No art commentators have included Factory in the history of modern art and very few music journalists are up to discussing it as such. Tony's TV work (such as those long After Midnight programmes) took TV in the right direction, but no one has been able to advance it in any direction since. Certainly of all the artifacts and questioning generated by the conceptual artists absolutely none of it can match the artifacts and events and thinking that Factory Records generated and continues to generate. That's why I say Factory was and is the finest expression of modernism since Julie Burchill and the Situationist International! Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols kick started a whole new context that everyone could join in.


A lot of Manchester bands credit the Sex Pistols with inspiring them to start a band. I never saw them live. I went to see The Slits at Eric's club in Liverpool instead! I can't remember a note they played but they were amazing fun. A proto-Frankie Goes to Hollywood (then playing as the Spitfire Boys) played one song called ‘Fuck Off' (the lyrics consisted entirely of ‘fuck off, fuck off, fuck off!'). I much prefer it to what they later got up to! Jayne Casey from Big in Japan/Pink Industry/Zulu Records was there. After recording for A Factory Quartet, Nathan McGough had the idea of starting a music venue in Liverpool. We decided to call it Plato's Ballroom and we plastered the city centre walls with silkscreen posters for these events. New Order played their first gig there (unless they did one in Manchester). Cabaret Voltaire, Jah Wobble and China Crisis played there and The Royal Family & The Poor (without Nathan or Phil - we used backing tapes made by Mike) played our last gig together at Plato's Ballroom. I've still got some of the posters designed by whoever wanted to do them. Nathan moved to Manchester and started a similar club event there before eventually managing Kalima and the Happy Mondays.

The Windsors of London Road

Between 1972 and 1976, before Teresa (my art student girlfriend) and I left Newcastle, we became involved with what was then called Divine Light Mission with Guru Maharaji. This later became Elan Vital and it's now the Prem Rawat Foundation. Through our interest in mystical things (or reality depending on what you're after) we eventually met Mike Keane. By 1978 we were probably drifting away from Prem Rawat out of boredom and into the music scene of the early '80s in Liverpool. As well as Eric's club and a punk record shop (next to the Cavern of Beatles memorabilia) there was also the bookshop News from Nowhere where we could have a coffee and flip through the anarchist and situationist literature. Some friends had even got an old Victorian warehouse off the Council so we'd organise exhibitions and events there. There was a café, some studios and a silkscreen poster service. The film club showed things like Godard's Alphaville; things with sub-titles. The poster section made the Plato's Ballroom posters as well as the tickets we issued that contained collages and quotes from the likes of Joseph Beuys and Guy Debord.

Sometimes a band would leave all their equipment there. Mike was very interested in starting to make music of his own. This led to the making of the first version of Vaneigem Mix round at my flat one sunny afternoon. A few days later and I'm reading an Anti-Racist poster at News from Nowhere and it's got a statement by Tony saying he's interested in the situationists. Not much later I meet Nathan and discover he knows Tony. He gives me Tony's address and I post the ‘Vaneigem Mix' tape to him. A few days later Tony rings Nathan and we're on course to recording it. We never met Martin Hannett (didn't have a clue who he was); Rob Gretton turned up for the recording to say hello and just let us get on with it.1 ‘Rackets' and ‘Death Factory' were exactly as described in the ‘Graveyard & Ballroom' text []. Everything was done in one take. We made some more tracks but they vanished. Besides me, Nathan and Mike there was Phil Hurst, the ex-drummer for Nightmares in Wax (Pete Burns was their singer). Phil left Liverpool a few weeks later.

Image: ‘and you may say to yourself the spectacle grafted onto everyday life has left pop art far behind’. Plato’s Ballroom Ticket – 25/3/1981

Contrary to James Nice's potted history on the LTM website, it's not true that Tony Wilson chose the name ‘The Royal Family & the Poor'. I did. A lot of journalists don't even like the name of the band, but it's a great name! I'd say its ‘resonance' is a radical separation from the world of separation; or to be prosaic, a bit left wing! Or: ‘the grand style of the age is always located in what is orientated by the obvious and secret necessity of revolution' (Debord). The Buzzcocks manager, Richard Boone, described our first demo as ‘makes the Gang of Four sound like the bubblegum band we always knew they were'. And that was before we'd even gone into the studio to record ‘Vaneigem Mix' with a drummer and Nathan on bass (he was walking around like he couldn't believe his luck when I invited him to play bass!)

The review of the Beach Club gig got some ace publicity in the music press. As for Pete Shelley being ‘disgusted' so what? Far from ‘skulking outside', as written in the review, I was sitting in the van with Teresa being photographed by Tony Wilson (my handsome and smiling face available later on A Factory Quartet). The band did not ‘struggle on without me' they enjoyed every minute of it (we were essentially practicing in public and had a good night out). No sense of humour in Manchester apart from Tony. What our fans have written is far more ‘thoroughly researched' than any journalist. Professional envy stops them telling the truth. The Royal Family & The Poor ‘split up' because Teresa got dangerously ill and Tony and Nathan didn't give a fuck. That's ‘papist' management for you!

We moved back to Newcastle and I mistakenly thought that Teresa would be ok in a month or two. Mike came to see us and we agreed he could take The Royal Family & The Poor on any Darwinian Survival path he saw fit. We'd sort out any problematics later; if indeed there was to be any ‘later'! It wasn't until Deborah Curtis published her book Touching from a Distance that I got a clue as to what was happening ‘inside' Factory. Mike's first Royal Family & The Poor album for Factory (Temple of the 13th Tribe) starts a kind of Psychic TV stance for him. He actually met Genesis P. Orridge later and did some magic rituals with him. Very interestingly Ian Curtis was hoping to form a new band with Genesis P. So this is where the magic and occult interests are expressed. It feeds the musician in Mike so I just accept it as such. He's become an ace musician and balladeer.


 Image: ‘The Pope’s Daughter’. Painting by Arthur McDonald, 2010

Vaneigem Mix

In the kingdom of consumption the citizen is king...'

The original ‘Vaneigem Mix ' was made in my flat in Liverpool with Mike. He was improvising away on an electric keyboards he'd wired up to some techno bits and pieces. I was lounging on the couch reading Vaneigem's The Revolution Of Everyday Life. After maybe ten minutes Mike develops a Kraftwerky tune. I ask him to repeat it and turn the cassette tape on. I add the lyrics from flipping through the book. This tape was sent to Tony eventually. I decided to make another version entirely with drums and guitars for A Factory Quartet but with exactly the same lyrics (the original tape got lost when Tony moved house). Nathan was clever enough to see that it was the lyrics/language that gave the music its distinction and so was free to play whatever he wanted. Mike then did the same. We never played it live! The same with ‘Art on 45'. It was more fun to make up variations based on what we'd learnt and could remember.

Art on 45

‘... enriched with nourishing hierarchical power...'

Tony turned up from start to finish during the recording of ‘Art on 45' and whilst Nathan and drummer Donald Johnson from A Certain Ratio made an ace dance track, I think I prefer the live version we made about a week later sailing up the river Mersey. Recording the studio version wasn't much fun; more of an interesting day out. We talked about Lawrence Weiner, Conceptual Art, The Tom Tom Club, John Cooper Clarke... all kinds of stuff. Being able to organise it in a studio made the transformed live version possible. Tony once said something like nobody else will let you record, but Jayne Casey contradicted him, and me and Teresa and another friend recorded ‘The Kremlin in Flames' as S.T.F.O.T.P.A. for her 1984 Zulu compilation.


When it gets to the point that it's not an advert for the system all they can do is send in the police...'

‘Rackets' was nearly completely written before we went into the studio. It's a kind of nihilism not too far from Ian Curtis's line from ‘Transmission': ‘the things that we've learnt are no longer enough' (not even what the situationists say). Sometimes the lyrics call up music sometimes the music calls up lyrics: ‘like communism, like anarchism, like punk, like reggae, like poetry...socialism is a racket'. ‘What's left?' - your spirit, the spirit of the listener, the spirit of the creator. It's impossible to explain everything. Camille Paglia says looking at a painting, reading a book, listening to music are magical acts.

Fack to the Future

I think Ian Curtis was the first modern philosopher. Philosophy begins with Joy Division. Modern thought begins to have a public life in Factory Records. It's also my belief that only an arsehole would say Joy Division has no political thump. They were explicitly proto-situationist and The Royal Family & The Poor started as explicitly situationist. Tony had to find a second pressing plant for our contribution to A Factory Quartet because the first plant said it was ‘obscene' and refused to make it. It wasn't sexually obscene in any way, but I guess it is existentially obscene (holistically obscene!): against reality.


Martin Hannett was the producer of choice for Factory Records at this time. An original partner in the label, he developed a very spacious and dub-inflected sound that was unusual for rock music. A fine example can be heard on his production work for Section 25's first album, Always Now. Rob Gretton, likewise a partner on the label, was at this time Joy Division's manager. He was a mainstay of the Manchester music scene until his death in 1999.


All images courtesy of Arthur McDonald.

Neil Cooper, ‘Plato's Ballroom' in Epiphanies Section, Wire No.245, July 2004.

Arthur McDonald, posts to Cerysmatic Factory message board, June 2010,

James Nice, ‘Royal Family & The Poor - a Biography', LTM 2003,

The Royal Family & The Poor, ‘Dirge', ‘Vaneigem Mix', ‘Rackets' and ‘Death Factory' first appeared on A Factory Quartet, Factory Records 1981. The latter two tracks are featured on Royal Family and the Poor - Anthology 1978-2000, Gaia Communications.

The Royal Family & The Poor (Arthur McDonald & Teresa), The Pope's Daughter, available from RF&TP, PO Box 1111, Newcastle Upon Tyne, NE99 4YU.

The Royal Family & The Poor (Mike Keane), Temple of the 13th Tribe, Factory Records, 1984. Reissued on CD by LTMs Boutique Label in 2003 and also including all the original A Factory Quartet tracks.

Lin Sangster, ‘Interview with Jayne Casey', (1993). Originally for Caught in Flux No.3,

Howard Slater, ‘Graveyard & Ballroom: A Factory Records Scrapbook', in Break/Flow 2, 1999,


The Royal Family & The Poor: Gothicon Editions, PO Box 1111, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE99 4YU or mcdonald6ee <AT>