The Bluetones have always been one of those bands that make everything look easy.
From the moment they arrived straight outta Hounslow, west London, seemingly fully-formed as one of the most exciting – and yet also the most nonchalant – bands of their generation, they’ve perennially gone about their business (essentially: purveyors of bespoke sparkling pop gems to a generation) with the maximum ease and the minimum drama. And with a little charm and a lot of style, obviously.
However. for their fifth album – a feat that has proved beyond almost all of those Nineties beat combos you may have erroneously considered their peers – The Bluetones have done things in a different way. The hard way.
Because their first recording for Cooking Vinyl sees the ‘Tones bounce back from the threat of obscurity with an album that fizzes with reinvigoration. That teems with superlative tunes about everything from environmental apathy to cross-dressing cross-Channel swimmers. That will surely remind everyone who hears it that here is a band that deserve to be ranked alongside our most cherished national treasures.
Not that the band have spent the two years since their last album - the spiky, terminally under-rated ‘Luxembourg’ - feeling particularly treasured. Indeed, the band that once demanded ‘Are You Blue Or Are You Blind?’ could have been forgiven for thinking people had opted for the latter, as despite the album’s considerable charms (lest we forget, it did include ‘Never Going Nowhere’, considered by many seasoned Tones-watchers at the time to be their finest song thus far), it remained resolutely under the radar.
“We never talked about splitting up,” chirrups frontman Mark Morriss from his lair in the rural idyll that is Chapel Studios in Lincolnshire, where the suitably back-to-basics entitled ‘The Bluetones’ was recorded. “But we must have thought about it individually because we knew something needed to happen. We didn’t want to besmirch the name of the band and end up more Black Lace than Bluetones. We never wanted to be disillusioned musicians, sat there balding, overweight and miserable but unable to do anything else.”
So the band actually did go and do other things for a bit (Mark as an acoustic troubadour, bassist Scott Morriss as a graphic designer, while guitarist Adam Devlin wrote songs for other people and drummer Eds Chesters went back to university), while all the while continuing to command a fiercely loyal live following and waiting for something to happen.
That something was last year’s sparkling ‘Serenity Now’ EP, which convinced Cooking Vinyl to offer them a deal (described as “a real shot in the arm” by Mark) and which provides the bouncy, upbeat sonic blueprint for ‘The Bluetones’. Because while the band may have proved themselves capable of living in the so-called real world, it certainly didn’t harm their core skillset (principally: writing guitar anthems so sprightly they’d put a spring in the step of a statue).
And it’s not just the title of this album that sees The Bluetones return to those first principles. Reunited with producer Hugh Jones – who helmed both their classic debut ‘Expecting To Fly’ and its follow-up ‘Return To The Last Chance Saloon’ – songs like ‘Hope & Jump’ and ‘The Last Song But One’ find the band firmly re-acquainted with the wry insouciance that made the band as popular with Smash Hits devotees as NME readers.
“‘Luxembourg’ was our little experiment,” says Mark. “A record with a philosophy – three minute songs, 30 minutes long, no acoustic guitars. For this we wanted to get back to the things we were doing when we made ‘Science And Nature’ (their winningly pastoral third album). After all, we should know our way around a happy pop song by now.”
And indeed they do. From the REM-esque, perky-pop-masking-serious-lyrics shenanigans of lead single ‘My Neighbour’s House’ to the more biting charms of ‘Head On A Spike’ via the superbly summery appeal of ‘Baby, Back Up’ and ‘Thank You, Not Today’, ‘The Bluetones’ marks a return that’s anything but slight.
And, in the end, it all came together perfectly. The recording was marked by several spooky acts of synchronicity – just as they took a flame-thrower to this generation’s apathy on ‘My Neighbour’s House’ (one of the tunes that makes Mark describe this as the ‘Tones “most politically conscious record”), Mark’s girlfriend’s neighbour’s house was indeed catching fire. While, somewhat less scarily, Mark found himself recording the vocals for the album’s cornerstone ‘Fade In/Fade Out’ just as its subject embarked on one of the key moments of his life.
“I’m very good friends with David Walliams,” says Mark, “And I was in close contact with him all the time he was doing the training for his big swim. I was incredibly inspired by his dedication so ‘Fade In/Fade Out’ was written about and for him. He’s been a good friend to me through the lean years – it’s strange because when our friendship started eight years ago, I was the celebrity and he was the ‘Who’s your mate?’ guy.”
And, just like the ‘Little Britain’ star on his Sport Relief exertions, The Bluetones have dodged all the jellyfish stings, marauding sharks and raw sewage the music business can throw at them, to complete a journey that really ought to change the way you perceive them.
And while they might have got here the hard way, you’d never know it from the crystal clear confidence that pervades every moment of ‘The Bluetones’’ particularly punchy brand of pristine pop, which survives as good today as it’s always been.
“We’ve got here without any real dramas,” grins Mark. “Nothing nasty, no accidents, injuries or worse. And the reason we’ve survived is because of the friendships within the band. We’re all best friends, we still see each other when we’re not working… it’s pretty difficult to give shit to someone you’ve known for 15 years.”
Consequently, their career may have lacked for those Spinal Tap moments that bands nowadays seem to indulge in before they’ve even got round to writing a half-decent single. But almost losing everything has given them an abundance of that other Tap essential: perspective. The end result is a band no longer expecting to fly, perhaps, but still experts in the fine art of hitting the musical heights.
“We’ve all changed,” concludes Mark. “Success came easily to us but then the bubble bursts and you find out what you’re made of. And now we’re back; slightly heavier but we’ve still got all our hair, so don’t rule us out just yet.”
Mark Sutherland, August 2006
The Bluetones eponymous
album is released in Ireland on 6th October 2006 on Cooking Vinyl Records
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