Have you ever harboured dreams of fame, fortune, critical praise, adoration and creativity as the source for all of that? Of course you have. We all have. At least, I have. Even now at an age when I should know much better I find myself daydreaming about a life as a writer, an actor or, and least likely of all, a singer in a band. I think about people who have achieved that sort of success late in life and console myself with the knowledge that it could still happen. I know it won’t, I don’t actually have any discernible talent that I could exploit but…it could still happen.
One thing more than any other stands in the way of my success.
I wasn’t born in Hounslow.
That’s that then. Pack up my dreams in one of those battered suitcases that a certain type of person uses as an occasional table and hide them away in the loft. I don’t have a loft. I don’t have one of those suitcases either. You get the idea though.
If you are reading this and thinking “I wasn’t born in Hounslow either mate, it’s not going to stop me from having a number one album/New York Times bestseller/Olympic gold medal.” then I say to you…you are wrong. So very wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong with a little side plate filled with more wrong.
You see, Hounslow is the cultural and creative capital of the United Kingdom. Even just living there, going to school there or passing through it for longer than a couple of hours is enough to bestow upon you certain unique gifts that will elevate you to the upper echelons of the artistic world.
I can hear you.
“He’s mental.” you’re thinking to yourself.
I’m not…and I can prove it.
Patsy Kensit lived in Hounslow when she was a teenager. She’s been in films. She’s been married to people in bands. She’s even been on Celebrity Big Brother.
Sophie Ellis-Bextor was born in Hounslow. She was in theaudience. She was on “Never Mind the Buzzcocks”. She has sold bundles of records to unsuspecting people.
Elvis bloody Costello went to school in Hounslow. He’s a proper musician. A real one. Not like the ones you get on “The Voice” or “X-Factor” or Sophie Ellis-Bextor. A bona fide music legend.
Ian Gillan. Deep Purple. Born in Hounslow.
Dave Cousins. LEADER of Strawbs. Strawbs! Born in Hounslow.
Ian McLagan from the flippin’ Small Faces. Ace Face. Mod icon. Born in Hounslow.
Still not convinced?
You’ve forced my hand.
Drummer. Actor. Singer. Hip-hop icon. Prog rock legend. Bald man.
Born in Hounslow.
I could go on. I could talk about how Mo Farah lived there or how Charles Hawtrey from the “Carry On…” films was born there or how the founder of the REED Recruitment Company was born there…on and on and on the list goes.
There is something magical about this place. Something…other. Something that seems to take ordinary human beings and mold them, manipulate them, mark them out for greater things, extraordinary things.
It should come as no surprise then that it is from this sacred soil that one of the greatest English bands of the last 30 years were spawned.
Twelve letters in that name.
Jesus had 12 disciples.
Time itself is measured in two groups of 12 hours.
Their are 12 animal signs in the Chinese zodiac.
Their are 12 signs in the Western zodiac.
12 tribes of Israel.
12 is the number of perfection in many cultures.
It would be lovely if The Bluetones had had 12 top 40 singles but, in an act of mystical mayhem, the fates granted them 13. Thirteen of the very best records of the Britpop era and, truthfully, thirteen of the best singles by any British band of any era. The “heavyweights” of the 1990’s British music scene may well have had number one singles, enjoyed “battles” for the top spot, been showered with Brit awards and played to hundreds of thousands of people in one sitting but, if they are being honest, they would swap all of that to have written and recorded anything as good as “Slight Return”, “Marblehead Johnson”, “If…”, “Sleazy Bed Track”, “Never Going Nowhere” or (the best record of the era) “Keep the Home Fires Burning”. I reckon Weller, Davies and Morrissey would have called time on their careers having written just one of those.
Right from the very beginning it was obvious that The Bluetones were cut from a very different cloth to many of the other bands of the time. They lacked the laddishness that was, in the case of certain Northern boys, absolutely genuine and, in the case of one Southern band, absolutely disingenuous. They didn’t seem concerned with being “part” of something. They were, as Mark Morriss described them, “frilly shirts” in a world clothed in Fred Perry.
The first single was released in 1995 and was “Slight Return”. It was sold on their tour of that year and came on blue vinyl and in very limited numbers. I bought a copy in King Tuts Wah Wah Hut in Glasgow. A shuffling, shimmering, slinky guitar part weaved its way into my ears, then my brain and my heart before I even had time to consider what was going on lyrically. “Where did you go, when things went wrong for you?”, “It was unfortunate, you missed your chance to find out that, you don’t have to have the solution…” and “I’m coming home!”. I could dance to it, I could cry to it, I could sing along to it…it instantly became my favourite song ever. Until a certain other Bluetones song arrived a few years later.
A further four singles were released from debut album “Expecting to Fly” (1995). That album stands out as one of the best of the era. People get very excited discussing whether “Parklife” or “What’s the Story?” was better (it’s “What’s the Story?” if you’re wondering) or if “Dog Man Star” was better than “Different Class” (probably a draw) but truthfully there is something about “Expecting to Fly” that has me playing it more often than any other album from that time. It is delicate, heartfelt, warm, charming and charged with honesty at every beat. I don’t know what that means either. It’s probably nonsense. I don’t care. I love this record.
It would be a further two years before any new “material arrived. By that point what we had grown to know and love as Britpop was coming to an end. 1998 was the end of the era. Where other bands of the time had dropped from the public’s mind, been dropped by their labels or succumbed completely to the truth of cocaine (it makes you an arsehole) The Bluetones bagged another 3 top ten singles and a top ten album. “Return to the Last Chance Saloon” arrived in March of 1998 and sold enough copies to see it becoming a Gold album. Here is how Robin Bresnark of the Melody Maker reviewed the album; “Did The Bluetones die in the past year? Did we forget to tell you? Hang on a minute…No according to our newsdesk, all four of them are very much alive and they’ve even got a new album out – probably the one I’m listening to right now. Yup, thats definately what it says on the sleeve. But if The Bluetones didn’t die, go to heaven and cadge songwriting tips directly from God, John Lennon, Jimi, Hurt and Wolfgang, could somebody please explain how they’ve come up with 13 tracks as inspired as these? Eh? Well?”
It’s difficult to top that for enthusiasm. The thing is though, Bresnark, undersold it! The singles alone give a clue as to quite how great an album we are dealing with. “Solomon Bites the Worm” with a lyric that Morrissey would later be “inspired” by for his “I Have Forgiven You Jesus”…”Monday, count all the teeth in my head” sings Morriss where Morrissey intones “Monday…disappointment” and then, like this track, rattles through the rest of the week. Cheeky old Morrissey. “If…” really does have a sound and a lyric that wouldn’t sound out of place on a “Greatest Hits…” by The Kinks. It’s a song that only an English band, a certain type of English band, could have written…despite the West coast America feel of the thing.
“Sleazy Bed Track” has a special place in my heart because it reminds me of a particular moment in my life that, possibly more than any other moment in my life, captures the essence of who I am.
It’s my last year at University.
My best friend on my course had a flat directly below the flat of a girl on our course that I am secretly a little obsessed with. A beautiful Irish girl. She made my heart flip every time she entered a room. I found myself sitting in lectures staring at the back of her head and wondering about what she was thinking about…hoping that it was me. As ever I was unable to let her know how I felt or act on my feelings. The risk of being rejected was more than the little bundle of self-doubt that passes for my heart could have taken.
One dark, rain soaked, wind swept Paisley night (in truth there are no other sorts of nights in Paisley) and my friend and I are watching television. It’s late. There is a knock on his door and it’s the girl. The girl. THE girl. She comes in and starts watching television with us. “The Amityville Horror” starts and the three of us sit in near silence watching. At the films conclusion she turns to me and says “Well, I can’t sleep on my own after that. Will you stay with me tonight?”. I look at my friend. He offers no help. I say “Sure” in as casual a way as I can.
In her bedroom is a single bed and a single sofa-bed at the foot of that bed. She leads me into her room. She goes off to brush her teeth. I’m alone. In a girls room. I don’t know what to do. I decide not to be too forward and climb underneath the blanket on the sofa-bed and wriggle out of my jeans. She comes back, looks over at me with what I now realise was disbelief and climbs into her bed before turning off the lights. “Are you comfortable down there?” she says in her delicious Irish brogue. “Fine thanks.” I reply. “You sure you wouldn’t be more comfortable up here?” she asks. It’s a defining moment in my life. Even an idiot can tell that she is inviting me into her bed. She likes me. She likes me…like that. This is it. I’m going to make love to a beautiful woman. “Nah, I’m alright here.” I say in the darkness. I can’t be sure but I think I heard her sighing. We never really spoke to one another after that. It is at this point that I would really like to thank my parents for bringing me up in a belief system that forbade sex outside of marriage and that instilled in me a belief that indulging myself in such activity was a sin. Really. Thank you.
“Sleazy Bed Track” is a song that can only be listened to late at night, in bed and with thoughts of someone you desire running through your mind. “I know it’s getting late, but if you’d like to talk a little more, well, that’s alright with me…I’m feeling kind of tired, but it ain’t exactly beating down my door, now just why could this be?” It stands as a testament to my status as a non-lad, an anti-lothario. Tragic. A tragedy. A tragicomedy. Nobody is laughing.
“Science and Nature” wouldn’t arrive until 2000 and thanks to a combination of one very peculiar single, a loyal fan base and the best single released by any band who came to prominence during the Britpop era it reached number 7 in the charts. Three places higher than “Return to the Last Chance Saloon” and a third consecutive top ten album. The second album from the album was “Autophilia (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love my Car)”. Now that is a title for a single. Imagine writing a song and calling “Autophilia (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love my Car)” and then deciding to release that as a single. That’s the sort of devil may care attitude you want from your pop stars. It may well be a song about a car or a metaphor or a simile or one of those other clever things what clever people do. Doesn’t really matter. All that matters is the fact that the history books will forever bare record of the fact that in the year 2000 a band called “The Bluetones” were at number 7 in the charts with a song called “Autophilia (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love my Car)”.
I could write a novel about why the first single from “Science and Nature” is the greatest single ever released by any band ever but I won’t, I’ll simply say this…”Keep the Home Fires Burning” is the greatest single ever released by any band ever. Thanks.
Oh, fine. Here is what Mark Morriss had to say about the song when I interviewed him in 2017;
“It is an autobiographical song, very much so. It’s a song about my stepfather when I was growing up, he was a pig headed and violent man. It’s about the sense that you may well be trapped in your own home. It was written from my perspective as a teenager, too young to leave home and not big enough to stand up and present any sort of physical threat. I think it is a song that presents some sort of truth.”
That truth comes backed by the sort of uniquely, gloriously, defiantly English soundscape that Damon Albarn dreamt of capturing on the likes of “Parklife” and “The Great Escape” but didn’t. For a trip down “misery lane” it’s a song that has crowds yelling every line back at the stage. Greatest single ever. Ever. Again. So there.
***The Bluetones are on tour around the UK in May and details can be found here…see you there.***