May 15th sees the release of the third album from the Bluetones, entitled ‘Science & Nature’. It contains chart-breaker ‘Keep The Home Fires Burning’, and is set to launch Hounslow’s finest export upon the world once more. Their career thus far has been solid and occasionally spectacular, in turn powered by a furnace of fiery pop tunes, and held back by the anchors of Stone Roses comparisons and a so-so second album response from the Britpress.
“It was our turn,” pondered guitarist Adam Devlin over the recent lukewarm reception. “We can’t complain because we know that fifty percent of the coverage of ‘Slight Return’ was due to us being around at the tail-end of Britpop. At that stage we could have released something duff and it would have been praised.”
Whatever the case, the Bluetones have never slumped to the duff, and for all the criticism, one would not compare their second album to The Stone Roses. So with the addition of a keyboardist as a permanent band member, are we to see a whole new side to the band for the third album? Record Mart & Buyer got together with singer Mark Morriss and sifted through a few of those stylistic gurus.
The Stone Roses
The Roses started life more or less as an antidote to the Smiths. Otis Redding was Ian Brown’s touchstone in an effort to make music that people could move to. Guitarist John Squire brought in the clean sound of The Byrds and coupled it with a dirty wah-wah, tapping into the central rhythm of drummer Reni. This rhythmic sound provides the root to a lot of pop/rock music to this day, and The Bluetones are fine exponents of that essential dynamic.
The Bluetones’ first release on their own Superior Quality label was a double-sided seven-inch featuring ‘Slight Return’ and ‘The Fountainhead’. ‘Slight Return’ employed the big sounding jangle of the 60s, plus a lively organic-sounding rhythm section, echoing the Roses’ efforts on ‘Mersey Paradise’ and ‘Elephant Stone’. The result of this was a hit single and a tag tied to the band’s toe saying that they sounded like the Roses.
A re-release down the line, ‘Slight Return’ is the track that the neutral fan can invariably cite and, as is the case with so many bands, it provides the benchmark for all subsequent releases. Perhaps a strengthening reference in the public psyche was James’s 1989 offering ‘Come Home’, with its parallel chorus and Mark Morriss’s vocal similarity to Tim Booth.
Having had to dodge such comparisons for the last four years, Mark indulges in no specifics. “I just love guitars, I think they’re the most effective emotional tool. I love the sound of guitars played in a certain way. We all loved the Stone Roses. At first everyone was comparing us to them, but we were confident that, given enough reference points, people would know where we were really coming from. If you know eight tracks by a band, you don’t really know them. But if you know twenty tracks, that’s a more accurate depiction of where they’re coming from.”
So what about the once-burning question: was the Roses’ ‘Second Coming’ a let down for you?
“No, no. I think there are some moments of absolute genius on it. It probably could have been trimmed a bit…” — and into Morriss’s voice creeps the wry confidence of an artist on the rise over his forbears — “…A couple of the long tracks off the second side could have gone. ‘Tears’ I could live without, and ‘Good Times’. That would have made a great album…”
In a genetically modified debate of 1995, the record buying public was asked if they preferred Oasis or Blur. The Bluetones themselves went organic and considered Supergrass to outrank both.
“I’m a big fan of Supergrass,” says Mark. “They have a chemistry about them and they’re really lucky. They can play anything and make it sound funky. They could play the ‘Millennium Prayer’ and we’d all rush out and buy it. I think we have the same chemistry as that, you know? In a band it’s either the chemistry of everyone pulling together or the noise of everyone pulling apart that can make great music.”
In a way Supergrass and the Bluetones have a good deal in common. Their first albums were struck through with unshakeable pop, and were followed up with a much darker sound for their second.
“Yeah, I think their second album’s fantastic. We supported Supergrass early on, and it was a really good place to be. Very fertile. Two of the best bands around on the same bill, and the tickets were seven quid!”
The Britpop idea is almost universally looked back on as contemptible. No bands wanted to be lumped under that little umbrella: a lot of trumpet blowing about guitar music of a merely healthy quality. The danger is not being able to see the new little England that pushed through, with the bands interwoven through fair means or foul. Blur vs Oasis was entirely manufactured, whereas the Blur/Elastica/Suede dynamic had the common element of Justine Frischmann, creating an interesting stir. The Bluetones and Dodgy lived more or less together, honing their harmonies in the same garage in Hounslow.
“There was one gig especially. Supergrass, then us in the middle, and Ash, and by the end of that year we’d all had number one albums. It was a big turning point. Well, not at the time really, you just keep your head down and get on with it, but on reflection it was an important time.”
After a lull in the Electronic Eighties, the career of The Beatles is now about as prosperous as it ever has been. However bad or good you consider the money-spinning reunions or the Britpop rip-offs, there really is no getting away from it: The Beatles’ career is example enough to even the most confident (nay, arrogant) of guitar-based bands in the early 21st century. They are currently more potent than any other band, and their art is definitive in the small field of popular music. The Bluetones bow down, deep down, to them.
“We all love the Beatles,” says Mark. “I would have to say my favourites of their albums are ‘Revolver’, ‘The White Album’ and ‘Rubber Soul’. Those three have been the most influential to me.
“‘The White Album’ is like a perfect antidote to ‘Sergeant Pepper’. I’m not of the school that thinks a reduced, single ‘White Album’ would make it a better record. It just shows a really different side of the band that people didn’t realise existed before. They’re working at a different way of putting the tracks down, a different way of editing it together. They’re going against all the other stuff; it’s not intricate and well thought-out. It’s Jackson Pollock as compared to Leonardo da Vinci.
“‘Revolver’ I think was an innovative jump. It proved that pop tunes could be lasting works of art at the same time as being palatable. It has that really strong guitar with a lovely crisp and clean sound, and then there’s a new aggressive delivery from John Lennon.”
Like the Boo Radleys before them and Dodgy along side, the Bluetones consider this accessible pop sound to be all-important. “The Beatles made the template for pop music, and pop is very important to us. When I was at school I was buying the pure pop stuff, like Duran Duran and Frankie Goes To Hollywood. It’s like, a painter has to have the picture frame to stop working by. The frame we use is pop. It’s a discipline to work to, a challenge when you’re writing interesting new songs.”
The popular idea of US/Canadian hybrid Buffalo Springfield is as a supergroup in reverse. They consisted of Neil Young, Stephen Stills (later sandwiched by Crosby and Nash), Richey Furay, Bruce Palmer and Dewey Martin. They toured with The Byrds before signing to Atlantic and releasing their first album. This contained the ever present ‘For What It’s Worth’ single, which remains their best-known moment, although the band is more generally credited for having paved the way for country rock.
Mark hops to an explanation. “They were so creative for a brief period between 1966-69. They were the first band containing three main songwriters in Stills, Young and Foray. They made about two and a half albums of the most wonderful, beautiful, positive eclectic music. They’ve got to be absolutely my favourite band ever, and the biggest influence.”
There were turbulent times for Buffalo Springfield; Bruce Palmer was deported and Neil Young and Stephen Stills were constantly at each other’s throats, resulting in Young’s temporary resignation from the band. Does that reflect the average day in the Bluetones, who are by all accounts a band of three song-writing guitarists?
“We’ve got five guitarists actually. We can all play. But no, there’s no ego problem. The only time there might be a problem is if someone stops bringing material to the band. We’ve got very much an equal split with song writing and money. The last thing you want to have problems about is money. It’s the first thing you sort out: you make sure everyone gets the same. It’s a Marxist Utopia in the Bluetones.”
Nobody really pays attention to the 80s when discussing guitar bands. It’s all 60s and Love and The Byrds and The Stones. A less vaunted influence on the Bluetones therefore is Talking Heads. True enough, the parallels are there. Their rhythm-based experiments built them into a success in the latter half of the 70s, and their collaboration with producer Brian Eno helped bring out a filmic element to their work and side-projects. Eno himself is a widescreen maestro, and enjoyed a fertile time with Derek Jarman towards the end of the British filmmaker’s life.
“When my brother was sixteen at school,” says Mark, “he and this mate of his really got into Talking Heads. So he brought the influence home, and we would sit in the bedroom listening to all these Talking Heads records. I was mesmerised with this persona that David Verne built up around himself. He was like a character in a Talking Heads movie.” Verne himself got into movie direction with 1986’s ‘True Stories’, for which Talking Heads recorded some songs.
“I think it’s Verne’s sort of humour and foolishness that I try to incorporate in our own stuff. I mean you’ve got to be light with what you do. It’s like Captain Beefheart as well, there’s a humour in there that I think is really important.”
Thankfully enough, the last decade has seen significant British bands celebrate the legacy of both the Smiths and the Stone Roses, rather than dividing the bands into rival camps. Whereas the latter concentrated on developing the right vibe, the former wielded a heady brew of melody and lyrical wit. Mixed together in the 1990s, those two ideologies created a high standard for bands to follow.
As a result The Smiths, like so many other much-loved bands, owe a percentage point to posterity. “It’s the legend,” says Mark. “The legend of The Smiths is what makes them so great now. But if music is good enough, it doesn’t date. It is a work of serious art, remaining as relevant today as it was when it was written. That’s what has happened to The Smiths.”
“The whole reason Adam picked up a guitar in the first place was because of Johnny Marr. It was the same with me, I was very driven by Johnny Marr, and Morrissey too when I thrust myself up into the limelight as the frontman.”
One critic in The Guardian described The Bluetones’ songs as being about ‘aloof alienation’, and this struck Mark as a well-observed expression. There are no surprises then when he is asked about overseas music.
“REM are a big influence. I’m not what you’d call a massive fan of ‘Up’, although I thought ‘New Adventures in Hi-Fi’ was a masterstroke. It was like a band that had found its muse again. They have been hugely successful in retaining their integrity through a lot of popularity, and I’d like to emulate that. I’d like us to retain integrity in the way they have. That’s one of the reasons we will never, ever, have any of our material on adverts or anything like that.”
Are there any other US influences you think the band has?
“Well, They Might Be Giants. They’re great. I was watching a video of their greatest hits a while back, and ‘Ana Ng’ came on and it sounded just like one of the songs off our new album. I spoke to my brother about it and he said, ‘Yeah, I know what you mean…’ I wish we were more like them. We’ve had meetings about what we can do to sound more like them.”
“But they’re not fucking Barenaked Ladies, are they?”
The Comedy B-side
There aren’t many bands who can justify the CD1-of-a-2CD-set swindle when it comes to selling singles. But the Bluetones have always been about good customer service. Superior Quality, to quote their label imprint. All the singles are in thick cases with nice booklets, and all the b-sides are new tracks.
“It’s got to look good,” explains Mark. “You put them in thick cases and they look nice. You give them all new tracks on the b-sides and people move them up from their Ordinary CD shelf to their Good CD shelf. And you can’t start putting live tracks on the b-sides. Why would anyone want to do that? And I don’t think we’ve ever done anything that would benefit from a remix. I don’t like the idea of handing over creative control to someone else. You’ve still got to pay them even if you don’t like it, so you might as well put it out. No, that stuff’s not our bag.”
The first offering from the ‘Science & Nature’ LP was ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’, released in February. For a glimpse at the Bluetones’ ‘bag’ check out the track ‘Armageddon (Outta Here)’. It features Vic Reeves cohort Matt Lucas and the Bluetones in a sketch outlining life in university Halls of Residence, and gently mocking the band for their Biggest Hit, ‘Slight Return’ (“Oh, I just thought it was called ‘You Don’t Have to Have the Solution You’ve Got to Understand the Problem'”). If you are reading this in a University Halls of Residence, it will sound exactly like the guys in the room next door (though not yourself, of course).
So anyway, how did it come about?
“Well, Matt’s a mate of mine. We’ve got this sort of mutual admiration. I initially had this idea for an instrumental, and I wanted to sample some bits of this dialogue he’d done for the Paramount Comedy Channel. So I phoned him up and asked him where I had to get permission for this and he said I could either go to Paramount, or we could record it again. Then he said that he’d quite like to write something new for it, and I liked that idea even better. I gave him the track and some ideas, goalposts to aim at really, and he wrote it and then performed it for us in the studio. We went around the place with a DAT tape recording all the sound effects and we recorded it Goon Show style, really. It was great, a real nice break from the drudgery of recording an album.”
Films play a large role in the life of Mark Morriss. He claims to have nine hundred on video, so surely they have some kind of influence on the way he presents himself creatively?
“Well, I think Woody Allen films are inspirational to me for the way I express myself in songs. He will make the odd flippant remark that throws a curve ball to make you think differently. He gives you a skewed perspective on things and it reveals truths, and it’s nice to go away with these truths. It’s very comforting to think that perhaps you’re not alone in thinking in such a way.
“Throughout his whole career he has always approached his films as a young, fresh person. He’s never been old and doddery, and his films all have the same sort of Woody Allen pace. I love that, and I identify with that kind of pace and emotional tone.”
Second Bluetones album ‘Return to the Last Chance Saloon’ is steeped in Spaghetti Western imagery, with Scott Morriss’s artwork all John Ford landscapes and cacti and sombrero-hidden Mexicans.
“There was certainly a Western thing going on there,” explains Mark. “I was really into Westerns, and there was this general curiosity going on about Latino culture and the Tex-Mex thing. We immersed ourselves in the culture and the food and the music, listening to all these Ennio Morricone soundtracks and Tito & Tarantula, and drinking lots of tequila.”
So it was a conscious thing?
“Well, I was just into it, and I think if you’re in a band then these things bleed through and everybody starts to get a bit involved with it.”
The ‘4-Day Weekend’ single is lifted from ‘Last Chance Saloon’, but dispenses with the Western imagery in favour of stills from a manga video that was made for the song by a Japanese animation company. How did that come about?
“Oh, I was so flattered when that came back. We are quite popular in the Far East anyway, and this company had approached us with an interest to do a video for one of the songs, so we sent ‘4-Day Weekend’ to them and they just gave it their own interpretation. It cost us virtually nothing, because the company figured that they would do this video and it would get picked up by MTV which would be good publicity for them and for us. But in the end MTV wouldn’t play it. The official explanation was that it didn’t fit in with their line, but it was just some chicken-shit bloke sitting behind a desk who made a chicken-shit decision. You know a lot of people suffer from one man’s decision like that.”
THE NEW ALBUM
‘Science & Nature’ will be unleashed on the public on 15th May on (“our little Anderson Shelter”) the Superior Quality Recordings imprint of Mercury Records. The first album was really accessible, and the second was much darker. What are we to expect from the third?
“I have great ambition for this record,” says Mark. “I think it could really do well. We’ve gone out of our way really to make this one the most accessible yet, after the heavy sound of the last one.”
So that makes your last album the proverbial Dark Second Act, a sort of ‘Empire Strikes Back’ of the Bluetones’ career?
“Ha, yeah! That’s exactly right. I’ll definitely have to use that. It was because we were all touring and playing live all the time. Our second album is born out of touring. It’s much beefier with the heavy live sound coming through. That’s what we had metamorphosed into. When you’re in a band it’s like a constant metamorphosis. Albums are like Polaroids of the band at a particular time. I mean, we finished this album in October, and we’re a different band now.”
Rather more thought has been put into the impact of different instruments with the new album. Adam Devlin gave an insight into the new sound recently: “[Keyboardist Richard Payne] is a multi-instrumentalist, but he’s not a muso. There’s a lot of natural instruments, like a banjo and a mandolin in there.”
From the tracks that have sneaked out for a preview, a new less-is-more vibe seems to have struck the band through after the expansive sound of ‘Last Chance Saloon’. ‘Tiger Lily’ lends a Simon & Garfunkel edge, and displays a much more pared down sound, with the suggestion that Richard Payne’s keyboards have been planted right at the centre of the Bluetones’ sound. ‘Zorrro’ was aired on Radio 1’s Evening Session at the end of last year, and has become something of a live favourite.
There is still plenty of the complex song-structure, and a new space carved for the harmonies to gain extra subtlety and impact. With the demise of Dodgy and the Boo Radleys, the Bluetones have a new territory to explore in their own carefully foolish way.