The best debut album by a British band ever?
Let’s go again.
The best debut album by a British band ever.
“Please Please Me”?
14 tracks and 6 of them were other people’s songs.
“The Rolling Stones”?
12 songs and 11 of them were other people’s songs.
14 songs and 8 of them were other people’s songs.
3 words; “Please” “Mr” “Gravedigger”.
That is four of the great sacred cows of British rock ‘n’ roll who released debut albums that were, at best, fine…and, at worst, were simply albums of cover versions
None of them manage to lift themselves beyond being reasonable. Let alone great.
A case can be made for the Sex Pistols “Never Mind the Bollocks” with all of its filth and fury, its single-handed changing of the world it landed in and its demented rage against everything.
Similarly “The Specials” by The Specials is a debut worth considering great…despite the fact that I’ve damned the debut releases from the Liverpool boys and the Droning Bones for largely consisting of cover versions. But, in the case of The Specials, their use of ska records was rooted not just in a love of the music but in a desire to promote an anti-racist message.
“Unknown Pleasures” is a near perfect record…but, it is fair to say, it isn’t a Joy Division record as they would have made it. It is, really, a Martin Hannett record and is a testament to his genius as a producer as much as it is a testament to the lyrical brilliance of Ian Curtis.
I’ve just realised quite how many people I have enraged already with this…fans of the Liverpool band, Dick Jagger and his Rusty Bones, Bowie apostles, The Kinks Primrose Hill Firm and the sorts of people who visit Ian Curtis’ grave.
Can I just say to all of you…I am very sorry for upsetting you and I hope that you can move on with your lives and that this horrible piece will soon be erased from your minds. The bands you love so dearly are really, really, great and I’m just an arsehole for being mean about them.
That’s the end of the article so you can all head off back to your very full lives.
Have they gone?
You can make a claim for your own favourite debut album by your favourite band in your own time.
I am here to suggest that the correct answer to the question; “What is the greatest debut album by a British band ever?” is, “Expecting to Fly” by The Bluetones.
Unlike many of their peers on the British nineties music scene The ‘Tones were not drawing only on The Kinks, the Liverpool band, Madness and The Jam for inspiration. In fact they were not drawing particularly heavily from British bands at all and had, instead, turned their ears to the likes of Buffalo Springfield (obviously) and The Byrds with a little dash of Scott Walker thrown into the mix for good measure.
Opening track, “Talking to Clarry” draws directly from the Buffalo Springfield song that the album takes its name from…with the shift from silence and a buzz leading into the song proper; on “Clarry” it is the dull roar of an aircraft taking off and with “Expecting” it is a long, quiet single note.
From the opening line, “I don’t have to be feeling down to speak to you” it is clear that we are dealing with a writer who understands the beauty of pathos and the importance of comedy. There must be a word for that combination. It is a beautiful love song with lines that can draw tears from the dead eyes of an X-Factor contestant…”You make my life so precious and so easy to part with.” Contradictions and conflations stumbling and tumbling over one another. Tragedy and romance in equal parts.
Where many other bands at this time were playing at eleven…searching for the anthemic chorus…mockneying their way through every line…The Bluetones provided something more musical, more intelligent, more careful and more considered. “Clarry” is a fine example of all of those qualities.
“Bluetonic” highlights their ability to take those same qualities and turn them into an indie disco floor filler…an anthem for the fragile generation. There may well have been a billion people at Knebworth bellowing every word to “Cigarettes and Alcohol” back at the band from a distance of several miles away but that wouldn’t come close to the thrill of seeing The Bluetones play this to 1000 souls in duffle coats with every face in the crowd stretched into the sort of grin that would make Cesar Romero look like Morrissey.
Again it is all there in the opening lines…”When I am sad and weary, when all my hope is gone.” Pathos. Pathos with a backing band who want to lift you from despair to joy. It shimmies and shuffles…forcing you to do exactly the same in response.
Pure pop perfection.
Very few of the lyricists from the Britpop era are talked about in the same hushed, reverential, tones that the likes of Morrissey, Curtis, Weller and Davies are by bearded men in second hand record shops but the truth of the matter is that Mark Morriss is absolutely deserving of his place at that top table.
“Cut Some Rug” shows a writer who wasn’t relying on a rhyming dictionary to find a word something that would couple with June. “But it’s hard to have responsibility…and judging by you, a personality” is the sort of thing that, even at his peak, Morrissey would have sold his collection of Shelagh Delaney transcripts for. “Of Blitzkrieg and the doodlebug, salt upon a bubbling slug” is hilarious, dark, evocative and wonderful all at once.
It is easy not to notice things like this because, much like Ray Davies, the words are accompanied by the sort of delicate pop thrills that have you bobbing your head and singing along without even realising what it is that you are singing.
I’m calling it.
Three songs in.
Best songwriter of the nineties.
You need more convincing?
Don’t ever stand aside
Don’t ever be denied
You wanna be who you’d be
If you’re coming with me
(Roll With It, Oasis)
“He lives in a house, a very big house…in the country”
(Country House, Blur)
“Things change but a part of its present formula remains”
(Things Change, The Bluetones”)
The defence rests.
One of the best songs on an album filled with best songs is “The Fountainhead” which, I suspect, was not inspired by the novel by objectivist Ayn Rand. My reasoning here is that where Rand was, possibly completely, mental and seemed to lack any sort of compassion where this song is a soothing moment of sanity in a world that often seems filled with only hurt.
Having said that, Rand did write;
“The hardest thing to explain is the glaringly evident which everybody has decided not to see.”
At times on “Expecting to Fly” it seems that The Bluetones are endeavouring to do exactly that…explain the glaringly evident which everybody else has decided not to see.
It could also be how fans of the band feel when confronted by people who think that “Wake up Boo” is the best song of the nineties.
For a band with such heart and soul it is incredible to see them perform live…the power, the wall of noise, the emotional punch and the frenzied response of the crowd is something to behold. That is never more evident than when they play something like “Carnt Be Trusted”. A song, maybe, about the failings of someone in a relationship…their inability to reign in their faults and the awful pain when the other person sees their low self-esteem and lack of self-control.
Could be you?
People love to drone on and on about the brilliance of Bernard Butler and Graham Coxon and John Squires when they start talking about the best guitarists of the era…but as you listen to “Expecting to Fly” you begin to feel a thought forming in your mind.
“What if…what if…what if…it’s none of them? What if…what if…it is actually somebody else? What if another guitarist actually delivered the most gorgeous guitar of the entire bloody era?”
Then some awful bore on Twitter posts something about a new pair of pants they have bought and how their private bits have never felt more cared for and the thought has gone.
Listen to “Slight Return” and put your ‘phone on the other side of the room so you are not tempted to look at Twitter.
Now…did you feel the thought forming?
Without a distraction what was the next thing that came into your mind?
What if bloody Adam Devlin was actually the Boss Hogg of guitarists in the nineties?
All McGuinn and Crosby strums and thrums with the occasional Johnny Marr shimmer.
Supported by Scott Morriss, as the Chris Hillman, they really do craft and create the sort of luscious guitar and bass sounds that only The Byrds have ever really bettered.
Isn’t that what loving music is about?
When you listen to “Putting out Fires” you are only further convinced about how great the two of them are. It’s another song about love…the passing of love…the pain of it all;
When you’re near my heart beats quicker, faster
It’s your skin as pale as alabaster
It has to be, it has to end
Losing a lover, gaining a friend
Again you are struck by the fact that Mark Morriss appears to have the ability to read your mind…then to take all the thoughts and feelings that are lurking unsaid in a corner and thrust them out into the world with more feeling, passion and poetry than you could ever have mustered.
“Vampire” does something funny to me.
A simple thing.
It pushes a very strange thought to the front of my mind.
Before we get to that…it’s a(nother) beautiful song.
Here it is then…I really want to hear Dolly Parton sing this.
Every time I hear it.
Every single time.
I’m listening to it now…I’m thinking about Dolly.
Like a “Jolene” sort of vocal?
“A Parting Gesture” could have been lifted straight from “Buffalo Springfield Again”. It’s all West Coast charm, country blues, 60’s Americana meets 90’s Hounslow.
“I’m not the same person I was a year ago
You cut me deeply and the scars still show
You make me act like a fool over you and now you drive me away
Just watch this live performance of the song and listen to the audience singing along…a song full of such sadness and bringing such comfort.
What a gift.
Things come to a close with a foot stomper, possibly the hardest thing on the album “Time & Again”. The usual elements are there of course…but it is certainly more driven than some of what has come before. It also includes some of my favourite lyrics in pop music history…
Nothing I can do could ever bring those feelings back
I’ve taken everything – my body is a bloated sack
The days behind me start rolling into months
Is time running out?
If you haven’t ever felt that way…congratulations.
And that is the end of that.
Each filled with romance and melody.
Each capable of drawing a tear and raising a smile.
Each the match of the one to come and the one before.
Each deserving of a place in your heart.
A flawless collection.
The greatest debut album by a British band ever.