The Bluetones are on the road bringing their loyal (blue) army a celebration of their first ten years. That first decade includes four studio albums, three of which went top ten, and fourteen singles , thirteen of which went top forty, and overall a body of work that stands side by side with any British band of the time…truthfully it is a body of work that towers above many of the bands of the same era and places them in the same place in the pantheon of pop as the likes of The Kinks, The Jam, The Smiths and other greats of British pop music.
It all started for me at King Tuts Wah Wah Hut in 1995 when I bought a single that came on blue vinyl and in a plain white sleeve. That was the double-A side “Slight Return”/”The Fountainhead” and it served as a stunning calling card…a statement of intent. Here was a band that cared about craft, who understood the thrill of hearing something magnificent and who wanted to be better than their peers. “Slight Return” shuffled, soared and shone like a star in the pop firmament. It was impossible to hear it and not to shimmy and shake in front of your bedroom mirror. It is, and I make no apologies for such a bold declaration, a perfect pop song.
Not just great.
Not really good.
“The Fountainhead” was a delicate and delightful thrill. At a time when the idea of the “new lad” was gaining traction and armies of young men were stalking the streets in ill fitting Ben Sherman shirts which they refused to tuck into their trousers…I feel physically sick thinking of it now…it was obvious from this song that The Bluetones were not part of that world and, furthermore, had no desire to be.
“Are you Blue or are you Blind?” was the first single proper from the ‘Tones and it kicked its way into the top forty on the strength of a chorus so catchy that it was the sonic equivalent of a sexually transmitted disease…but a good one, you know, one without any symptoms but that still served as a reminder that you actually managed to have sex? I’m fairly sure that not a single syllable of that makes any sense but I’m not deleting it. “Are you blue…” was infectious. It was the sound of a beautiful summer’s day, it made you feel glad to be alive and buzzed around your head for hours after you heard it.
“When I am sad and weary, when all my hope is gone, and I can’t put my finger on the time things first went wrong, I have a little secret I like to tell myself and until now I haven’t told anybody else…”
Those are the opening lines to “Bluetonic” and, in my far from humble opinion, they stand side by side with anything that any of the “greats” ever managed to scratch onto a sheet of A4. Before you start responding with other great opening lines from the likes of The Beatles and The Droning Stones or Radiodead and Der Schmidts…don’t. I am spectacularly disinterested. Right here, right now, on the eve of seeing The Bluetones live I have ears only for them.
The final single from “Expecting to Fly” was “Cut Some Rug” which thrust its way into the top ten (peaking at number 7) and serving as a testament of the skill, style and swagger that ran through everything they recorded or performed. “It’s easy living in a bubble, no complication or trouble…but it’s hard to have responsibility” is the sort of advice that everybody wishes they had been given when they were younger, the problem is that when Mark Morriss sang it back when I was younger…I wasn’t really listening. Bloody youth, waste on the young innit?
Before their second album “Return to the Last Chance Saloon” the ‘Tones released a stand alone single, “Marblehead Johnson” which was sultry and smooth in ways that Sade could only dream of. It also contains one of my favourite lines in popular music, “I might say something that we both regret.” That, my friends, is the work of a genius. A genius I tells ya.
With swirling organ, chunky guitars and a lyrical structure that a certain Stevie Morrissey of Salford would pinch nearly a decade later the next phase of the story of The Bluetones kicked off with “Solomon Bites the Worm”. It’s frantic, frenzied, frenetic and flippin’ fabulous. In a better world than this one it would have been a number one hit and would have been the song that cemented the band as something more than just a band. As it turned out we all had to settle for a spot in the top ten and the knowledge that no matter who was, or was not listening, we all knew that this was the band who captured the beauty and the craft of Britpop in a way that no other band did.
When “Solomon…” was followed by “If…” it became very clear that The Bluetones were already operating in an entirely different realm to that of the zeitgeist. They were a band with an eye on something bigger than a table at the Ivy. They wanted a body of work that would sit comfortably alongside the bands who had inspired them to start this business in the first place. “If…” was easily that…and more.
When a pretty Irish girl at University invited me to come back to her room because she was too afraid to sleep alone after a group of us had watched “The Amityville Horror” one night I couldn’t believe it. She really was very pretty. The problem was my religious upbringing meant that I viewed sex before marriage the same way that Superman viewed Kryptonite…it left me terrified and convinced that a terrible, slow, death would result from going anywhere near it. As we entered her bedroom and I prepared myself for the inevitable disappointment to come I wished for a slightly less guilt ridden and slightly more hedonistic life. Basically what I wanted was the bits of “Sleazy Bed Track” that urged you to kick off your shoes and lay down…what I got, and what that poor girl got, was “The Forty Year Old Virgin” in twenty-somethings body.
The final single of 1998 was the mail order only “4 Day Weekend”. A rough and fiery little nugget it deserved a proper release but I really love the idea of the people who bought it owning something so special. It seems like such a ludicrous idea now, a band as big as The Bluetones were at that time releasing a single via mail order! God bless ’em.
What came next was, without doubt, the greatest single of the entire Britpop era…that wasn’t actually released in the Britpop era.
“Keep the Home Fires Burning” is one of the greatest singles by a British band of all time.
“Keep the Home Fires Burning” is the greatest single by a British band of all time.
I’m happy with that.
A bit over the top?
It’s a gross understatement if anything.
Go and listen to it…I’ll wait.
Now tell me it’s a bit over the top.
People often ask me why I love The Bluetones so much and I always say the same thing, I say…
“Listen, it’s very simple really. There are lots of bands I love. There are lots of great bands. Too many to mention really. However, only one band has ever released a single called “Autophilia (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love my Car)” and that band is The Bluetones. Do you see? Do you get it?”
Just imagine the balls on a band who go to a label and say, “Hi guys, we’ve got big news, we’ve recorded a new song and we think it’s got HIT written all over it…it’s called “Autophilia (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love my Car)”, seriously guys we think it’s going to be MASSIVE with the “Top Gear” crowd, big money in that market.” Can you just see the jaws dropping, the eyes rolling and the hearts stopping?
That’s reason enough to give your heart to The Bluetones.
“After Hours” is the song blur wish they had written instead of “Country House”. It’s brilliantly, blaringly, brazenly, British. A pub, a lock-in, the old Joanna chiming away in the background, a quiz machine, a juke box…it’s so great. The fact that it has a video directed by Edgar Wright that pays homage to “Bugsy Malone” and ends up with the boys in the band “killing” the stage school kids just makes it the perfect pop package.
A fourth album appeared in 2003 and featured the double-a side “Fast Boy”/”Liquid Lips” which both sounded just like The Bluetones while still managing to sound like something different to everything else they had done. That’s a wonderful talent…to have a sound, to possess a style, to be recognisable and yet be able to sound fresh. Eight years after their first album and first run of singles they were still able to break into the top forty. That’s remarkable when one considers the fate that had befallen many other bands who arrived at the same time.
The first ten years of The Bluetones ended with a single that should be on a list of great lost pop songs. Does that list exist? It should. At number one would be “Never Going Nowhere” which, again, had elements pinched by the Pope of Mope a few years later and that was their last top forty hit. It’s just another example of their ability to write tunes, melodies and lyrics that make your heart soar, your eyes moisten and your toes tap.
Right now The Bluetones are on the road celebrating their first ten years…amazingly they won’t play all of these songs because their body of work from that period includes songs tucked away on albums or on b-sides that are the match of this catalogue of pop mastery. Think about the fact that this list doesn’t include…”Talking to Clarry”, “Carnt be Trusted”, “Sky Will Fall”, “The Jub-Jub Bird”, “The Last of the Great Navigators”, “Mudslide”, “Code Blue” or “Here it Comes Again”. Madness. What is even madder is the fact that everyone reading this who loves them will be able to offer up their own alternative history of The Bluetones first ten years that wouldn’t include any of the songs in that list.
A decade of perfection.