Michael Halpin Journalism


Sounds Magazine Feature: The Beatles, London’s Counter-Culture & Sgt. Pepper




The rock group, The Beatles, is shown in 1967. From left, are: Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Paul McCartney; and George Harrison.(AP Photo/ho)

As The Beatles ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band’ turns fifty, Sounds Magazine’s Michael Halpin tells the story of the environment in which the album was created and revisits the reaction to ‘Sgt.Pepper’ upon the time of its release. Embracing London’s underground movement, musique-concrete and Indian philosophy, as well as encountering the conservatism of the British establishment, The Beatles managed to create one of the most talked about and celebrated albums of all time. An album which reflects the age in which it was created like no other.

On the 18th of January 1967, Paul McCartney gave, by far, his most candid interview to date. Appearing on a half-hour documentary entitled ‘It’s So Far Out It’s Straight Down,’ for Granada Television, the twenty-four-year-old McCartney discussed London’s burgeoning ‘Underground Movement’ which had become an increasingly significant part of British youth-culture over the previous eighteen months.

Appearing to have aged mentally as well as physically in the months since The Beatles August ’66 American tour, McCartney discussed topics such as personal freedom, painting, making music, psychedelia, the recently opened Indica art gallery and bookshop as well as discussing the ultra-hip underground newspaper, The International Times.

McCartney’s demeanour and tone were very different from the lovable pop star of October 1965 who had gladly accepted his MBE from the Queen at Buckingham Palace. By contrast, McCartney’s interview criticised both the conservatism of British society and the fear and suspicion that the establishment appeared to have of those involved in London’s underground scene. “I really wish the people who look with anger at the weirdo’s, at the happenings, at the psychedelic freak-outs, would, instead of just looking with anger, would just look with nothing,” McCartney said. He challenged those who looked with suspicion to be ‘unbiased’ about the underground movement:

“They really don’t realise that what these people are talking about, is something that they want for themselves—personal freedom.”

‘The ‘people’ that Paul McCartney was referring to were the key players in London’s counter-cultural underground scene. Individuals such as John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins, Barry Miles, John Dunbar (husband of Marianne Faithfull from 1965-66) and Peter Asher (brother of Paul McCartney’s then girlfriend, Jane Asher) between them were responsible for founding The International Times, Indica, the UFO club – where the early Pink Floyd were deemed to be the clubs house band – and the London Free School, out of which, The Notting Hill Carnival grew.

The seeds of the underground movement being discussed in ‘It’s So Far Out—’ were both the CND marches of the early 1960s and the much revered ‘International Poetry Incarnation’ gathering, held at London’s Royal Albert Hall in June 1965.

Featuring the likes of Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the International Poetry Incarnation acted as a starting point for much of what McCartney was referring to as he defended the ideas and ideals held by the undergrounds key players and innovators. “All this gang of people from International Times, Indica and the whole scene are trying to do is see where we are now and see what we’ve got around us—Its just a straight forward endeavour to do something other than what’s been done before—there’s nothing strange about it. They’re talking about things that are a bit new, and they’re talking about things that people don’t really know too much about yet.”

The thought behind the International Times was to cover areas ignored by the Fleet Street press in 1966 such as poetry, music, political activism, theatre, art and literature. Following the International Times launch in October 1966, it soon ran into financial trouble but as a friend of Barry Miles, Paul McCartney made the suggestion, “If you interview me, then you’ll be able to get advertising from record companies,” Barry Miles recalled in his Paul McCartney, ‘Many Years From Now.’

The McCartney interview was picked up by the underground press syndicate and reprinted in San Francisco, Vancouver, Sweden and Holland. Following McCartney’s interview, the International Times interviewed George Harrison who’s entire interview was devoted to Hinduism and Zen. The paper’s financial troubles, for the time being at least, had been eased in the process.

McCartney also held a heavy involvement, although silent at the time, in assisting M.A.D. (Miles, Asher and Dunbar) financially in the set up of the Indica bookshop and art gallery. Further to his financial assistance, McCartney also built the bookshelves in the Indica shop and painted the walls. Poet, Peter Brown, who would later go on to write with Cream, was also involved in the birth of Indica and recalls, “I would be painting away and look over my shoulder and there would be Paul McCartney sawing wood.”

Following The Beatles final tour in the summer of 1966, for the first time in over five years, they had no immediate plans ahead of them. Deciding that they were not prepared to record an album in time for the Christmas market (as they had done in the previous three years) and deciding that they were not going to make a film in 1966 as they had in both ’64 and ‘65, each Beatle took time out to pursue their own interests. For Paul McCartney this meant he had time to embrace both the London counter-culture and more experimental music:

“Paul was very much into what we called the ‘Avante-Garde’ in those days: modern art, literature, modern music by the likes of John Cage, Stockhausen – the things he heard in the fruitful environment provided by the family Asher.” Beatles producer George Martin told William Pearson in ‘Summer of Love’. “The Asher’s, who took Paul in when he started going out with Jane, were very perceptive people, highly intelligent and very musical. They encouraged Paul in his musical self-education to experiment and to be free, musically, if he felt like it.”

Although the Ashers are unlikely to have introduced Paul to the avante-garde experiments of John Cage and Karl Heinz Stockhausen, through his exploration of London’s underground movement, and the social circles in which he was moving at the time, McCartney’s exposure to the musique-concrete of John Cage, Stockhausen and Luciano Berio, as well as the free-jazz of AMM and Albert Ayler, opened up a whole new world of possibilities to the ever inquisitive McCartney regarding what The Beatles could do as the follow up to the much revered ‘Revolver’ LP.

McCartney’s ‘It’s So Far Out’ interview portrayed a more serious freethinking young man. A young man open to experimentation and pushing the boundaries of what was possible within popular music. Rather appropriately, on the day that followed McCartney’s Granada Television interview, The Beatles set to work at EMI Studios on their most ambitious recording to date: ‘A Day In The Life.’

Written predominantly by John Lennon, ‘A Day In The Life’ was conceived following a newspaper article reporting the death of Tara Browne, a friend of Paul McCartney’s who was living the life of a young millionaire in middle-class ‘Swinging London’. Due to inherit the Guinness Brewery’s fortune in later life, Browne’s life was cut short following a road accident in which he drove his Lotus Elan, at speed, through a red traffic light in South Kensington. Browne’s Lotus hit a parked van and he died instantly.

As Lennon and McCartney developed the idea inspired by the Tara Browne newspaper article and The Beatles conceived their most daring recording. Complete with counter-cultural drug references (‘I’d love to turn you on’), an avante-garde forty-one piece orchestral climax and a final chord leading to a forty-five second fade-out, it is impossible to consider that ‘A Day In The Life’ would have been possible had Paul McCartney not been exposed to the musique-concrete experimentation of Stockhausen and John Cage.

Like ‘A Day In The Life’, much of Lennon and McCartney’s work during the writing of ‘Sgt. Pepper’ drew inspiration from idly flicking through magazines and newspapers and in Lennon’s case, writing whilst watching TV. In Hunter Davies’ 1968 authorised biography of The Beatles, John Lennon explained how this method assisted him in the composition of ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’.

“I often sit at the piano, working at songs, with the telly on low in the background. If I’m a bit low and not getting much done, then the words on the telly come through. That’s when I heard ‘Good Morning, Good Morning.”

While Paul McCartney became London’s counter-cultural man-about-town, Lennon would spend much of his day, whiling away the hours in this way, sat inside his twenty-seven-room mock-Tudor mansion in Weybridge, Surrey.

Tony Bramwell, Brian Epstein’s former-assistant, discussed Lennon’s lifestyle during this period with Sounds Magazine recently and commented that John, ‘probably was’ jealous of Paul’s freedom. “John was very lazy. He would spend his days reading, doodling, playing with Julian and writing I suppose—and taking lots of acid—and I remember, he used to go into London and just get totally whacked for a night and then go back to Weybridge, carted off in the back of the car in a heap.”

Living in a property chosen for him by Brian Epstein, the well-policed, extremely suburban Weybridge appeared to have a stultifying effect on Lennon. “I was still in a real big depression in ‘Pepper’” Lennon told Barry Miles, “and I know Paul wasn’t at the time. He was full of confidence. I was going through murder.”

The “murder” that Lennon was going through began in mid-1965 in what he described as his ‘Fat Elvis’ period. By early-’67 much of the physical weight that Lennon had gained during the Beatles ascendancy had been lost, mentally however, little had changed. His increased LSD intake only exacerbated matters as he, like many LSD users of the time, killed his ego and suppressed his motivation. Luckily for The Beatles however, as Lennon fell further into domesticated and LSD induced isolation, McCartney was entering a period in which his imagination was at its most fertile.


“After what had happened in 1966, everything else seemed like hard work. It was a job, like doing something I didn’t really want to do -George.

During The Beatles final American tour, they began to observe the trend of unlikely, rather extensive names being adopted by a large number of west-coast rock groups. In 1980 John Lennon told Playboy magazine: “People were no longer ‘The Beatles’ or ‘The Crickets’, – they were now ‘Fred and His Incredible Shrinking Airplanes.”

On a flight back from Kenya in November 1966, whilst The Beatles were in the midst of their extended break, Paul McCartney considered what The Beatles might be called, should they have been a new band, in search of a name. Bolstered by a recent trip to France where he had donned a disguise, dressed differently and thoroughly enjoyed the anonymity, McCartney considered the possibility of the Beatles losing their identity and adopting an alter ego.

“I threw those words together: Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heats Club Band’, McCartney explained in ‘The Beatles Anthology’. “I took the idea back to the guys in London: ‘As we’re trying to get away from ourselves – to get away from touring and into a more surreal thing – how about if we become an alter-ego band, something like, say, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts?”

“They were a bit bemused at first, I think, but they said, ‘Yeah, that’ll be great” McCartney told Barry Miles. “Everyone was into it. It was a direction for the album.”

Due to the extended amount of time McCartney suddenly had on his hands due to his girlfriend, Jane Asher, spending much of her time extensively travelling as part of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre Company, McCartney was effectively left to direct The Beatles himself by early 1967. The ever-affable Ringo was never likely to rock the boat regarding what musical and conceptual direction The Beatles took; John’s mood appeared too apathetic to be overly opposed to any McCartney’s ideas at this point and George, still scarred from 1966 and what Tony Bramwell described as a ‘shitty year’, was, as he stated in ‘The Beatles Anthology’, “losing interest in being ‘fab’ at that point.”

“So many things happened (in 1966) that were untoward,” Tony Bramwell told ‘Sounds’. “Manila, rip-offs, robberies, America, Jesus quotes and all that stuff—and they were still touring and they still couldn’t be The Beatles. The Beatles were a band of five years earlier that played for eight hours a night. What they were (by 1966), were a sort of cabaret act playing for half-an-hour a night and on top of that, unable to play the songs that they were writing and recording because the technology wasn’t there to be able to play them onstage. The PA systems were inadequate, everything was just a waste of time really. The audience couldn’t hear them, they couldn’t hear what they were playing, they couldn’t play what they wanted to play. The treadmill of the whole thing. Plus they’d taken some drugs and had a different viewpoint on life.”

George Harrison (Beatles Anthology): “After what had happened in 1966, everything else seemed like hard work. It was a job, like doing something I didn’t really want to do—I felt like we were just in the studio to make the next record, and Paul was going on about this idea of some fictitious band. That side of it didn’t really interest me.”

As John Lennon’s apathy increased and his escalating LSD ingestion took hold he ran the risk of becoming a bona fide acid casualty in a similar vein to that of Roky Erickson, Syd Barrett or Brian Wilson. In her book, ‘John’, Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia tells of how “within weeks of his first trip, John was taking LSD daily,” and explains that those around him were concerned for his health at the time:

“At the launch party for ‘Sgt. Pepper’, the journalist Ray Coleman was seriously worried about John’s health when he met him that night. Not only was he clearly drugged, he was smoking and drinking and looked haggard, old and ill; his eyes were glazed and his speech was slurred.”

During the recording of ‘Fixing a Hole’ (a crystallisation of the ideals that McCartney was trying to communicate in his ‘Its So Far Out’ Interview) The Beatles themselves encountered an early acid casualty.

“The night when we were going to record it (Fixing A Hole) I brought a guy who was Jesus.” McCartney told Barry Miles. “A guy arrived at my front gate and I said ‘Yes?’ This guy said, ‘I’m Jesus Christ,’ I said, ‘Oop,’ slightly shocked. I said, ‘Well, you’d better come in then.’ I thought, ‘Well, it probably isn’t. But if he is, I’m not going to be the one to turn him away.’ So I gave him a cup of tea and we just chatted and I asked, ‘Why do you think you are Jesus?’ There were a lot of casualties about then. We used to get a lot of people who were insecure or going through emotional breakdowns or whatever. So I said, ‘I’ve got to go to a session but if you promise to be very quiet and just sit in the corner, you can come.’ So he did, he came to the session and he did sit very quietly and I never saw him after that. I introduced him to the guys. They said, ‘Who’s this?’ I said, ‘He’s Jesus Christ.”

Although ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and LSD will be forever intertwined, essentially due to the furore surrounding ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ upon ‘Pepper’s’ release, much of the imagery surrounding ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ came from John Lennon’s love of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice In Wonderland.’ As far back as June 1965, Lennon was speaking publicly about his love of the ‘Alice’ books. In an interview for BBC Radio’s ‘World Of Books’ he explained, “I love ‘Alice In Wonderland’ and ‘Alice Through The Looking Glass’—I usually read those two about once a year because I still like them.”

With the Carroll-esque imagery created in ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ and the childhood theme visited in ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ the mix of psychedelia and childlike innocence was very much in the public consciousness in the later part of 1966 and early 1967. As well as the lyrical themes visited by Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett, the blend of psychedelia and childhood was no more evident than in Jonathan Miller’s TV adaptation of ‘Alice In Wonderland’, screened by the BBC on the 28th of December 1966. Miller’s film was awash with psychedelic imagery, hallucinogenic dream-like sequences and, as if to add even further weight to it as a totem of the psychedelic period, the soundtrack was written by the peerless Ravi Shankar.

Aside from ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ hypnotic, five-note intro, much of the songs intrigue can be attributed to the musical colouration added by George Harrison. Along with adding the songs tamboura drone having amassed a multitude of eastern instruments, Harrison also added a further off-kilter tone to Lennon’s song:

“During vocals in Indian music they have an Indian instrument called a sarangi, which sounds like the human voice, and the vocalist and sarangi player are more or less in unison in a performance. For ‘Lucy’ I thought I’d try that idea but because I’m not a sarangi player I played it on the guitar. I was trying to copy Indian classical music,” he explained in The Beatles Anthology.

During his visit to India in the September of 1966, Harrison learned the sitar under the tutelage of Ravi Shankar and immersed himself in Indian culture. Upon his return he was to become relatively silent during much of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ recording. “I’d just got back from India, and my heart was still out there.” As a student of the sitar, Harrison appeared to lose interest in guitar playing and aside from his solo on ‘Fixing A Hole’, ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ only other two significant guitar moments, the lead guitar on the album’s title track and the Hendrix-esque solo on ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’, can both be attributed to Paul McCartney. George’s guitar work on the album’s title-track was replaced by McCartney after George is said to have spent seven hours recording his contribution.

As George’s musical leanings veered towards a more eastern influence, it was inevitable that any contribution to ‘Pepper’ was going to be in this vein. ‘Within You, Without You’ was only arrived at however after producer George Martin had the unenviable task of informing Harrison that he did not believe that George’s first offering, ‘Only A Northern Song’, was good enough to be included on the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ album. Martin then advising Harrison to go away and write something better. This was the only time George Martin had to undertake such a task during The Beatles career.

“I never cold-shouldered George,” the producer explained in ‘Summer of Love’. “I did, though, look at his new material with a slightly jaundiced eye. When he brought a new song along to me, even before he had played it, I would say to myself, ‘I wonder if it is going to be any better than the last one?’ When he came up with ‘Within You, Without You’, then, as a replacement, it was a bit of a relief all round.”

“The song was written at Klaus Voormann’s house in Hampstead, London, one night after dinner.” George said in his 1980 autobiography ‘I, Me, Mine’. “I was playing a pedal harmonium in the house, when the song came to me. The tune came first, then the first sentence—’we were talking’—I finished the words later.”

The words that Harrison later completed were inspired by a conversation with his then sister-in-law, Jenny Boyd. “I read that line in a book and I called him and said, ‘this is an amazing line’, and he thought it was incredible line,” she told Sounds. “So it inspired him to write ‘Within You, Without You’. It’s from ‘Karma & Rebirth’ a book I was reading by Christmas Humphreys.”

Much of the deeply anti-establishment tone of ‘Within You, Without You’ can be aligned to the youngest Beatles’ experiences less than six months earlier. Witnessing religious fanaticism in America, heavy-handed crowd control in Japan and the wrath of a fascist dictatorship in the Philippines, it is of little wonder that Harrison sounded world-weary and questioning of those in power in 1967.

Aside from Harrison, none of the other Beatles play on or contribute any vocals to ‘Within You, Without You’ and any sign of western instrumentation is buried deep in the songs mix. As a result, ‘Within You, Without You’ is very much the track most distant from the sound that the Beatles were known for prior to the release of ‘Sgt. Pepper’.



On the 12th of May, twenty-days before the albums official release, pirate radio station, Radio London, played ‘Sgt Pepper’ in its entirety at a time when the 3 minute single was still the dominant musical format to be aired. According to legend, many American radio stations suspended their playlist for several days upon the release of ‘Pepper’ and replaced it with tracks from the album. As The Pretty Things Dick Taylor said to Sounds in a recent interview, “The word ‘zeitgeist’ springs to mind.”

Following its release on the 1st of June, ‘Sgt. Pepper’ sold 250,000 copies in its first week, the fastest selling album in UK chart history at that point. On the same day however, the conservatism of the British establishment that Paul McCartney had bemoaned in ‘Its So Far Out’, was still more than apparent. Following the International Times offices being raided by the London police in March, leading counter-cultural light John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins was jailed for nine months for possession of marijuana, his creative free-thinking spirit forever quashed upon his release six-months later.

On the same day, the Daily Mail lamented the development and artistic growth of The Beatles, commenting, “What’s happened to The Beatles? It’s now around four years since they happened, and since the early days of 1963, the Beatles have changed completely. They rose as heroes of a social revolution. They were everbody’s next-door neighbours. The boys whom everybody could identify with. Now, four years later, they have isolated themselves, not only personally, but also musically. They have become contemplative, secretive, exclusive and excluded.”

Tony Bramwell told Sounds that the Beatles faced similar conservatism within the circle of musicians who had come out of Liverpool whilst riding the wave of Merseybeat, “There was a northern mentality of ‘Oh, they’ve gone too far this time! After the first couple (of records) had been released, people would be saying, ‘Oh, it’s not as good as the last one.’ They’d say that after their first hearing and then after a few hearings they’d say, ‘Oh, god, yes it is, it’s bloody good.’ They (listeners) weren’t getting them as quickly and also the press and the media were constantly looking for some way of knocking them down.”

Aside from the misgivings of the Daily Mail and various contemporaries from their Cavern days, praise for ‘Sgt. Pepper’ was almost unanimous. The Times called the release of ‘Sgt. Pepper’ a “decisive moment in the history of western civilisation” while the New York Review of Books heralded it as a “new and golden renaissance of song.” Newsweek referred to it as, “The Beatles ‘Waste land” in reference to the work of T.S. Eliot and an over-exuberant Timothy Leary declared, “John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are mutants. Evolutionary agents sent by God, endowed with mysterious powers to create a new human species.”

One of the most significant and surprising reviews, considering the general hyperbole that surrounded Sgt. Pepper, came from Richard Goldstein of America’s ‘alternative newsweekly’, ‘The Village Voice’. Goldstein’s review, which later found itself appearing in the New York Times, described ‘Sgt. Pepper’ as “a pastiche of dissonance and lushness.” Stating, “The mood is mellow, even nostalgic. But, like the cover, the overall effect is busy, hip and cluttered.” Goldstein continued, “Like an over-attended child, ‘Sgt. Pepper’ is spoiled.”

Goldstein described the lyrics of ‘Within You, Without You’ as “dismal and dull” before concluding that, “all the minor scales in the Orient wouldn’t make ‘Within You, Without You’ profound”. Further lines from Goldstein’s review included, “There is nothing beautiful on ‘Sgt. Pepper” and concluded that the album was, “an undistinguished collection of work.”

Six-weeks later, on July 20th, Goldstein wrote a follow-up in which, although conceding that ‘Sgt. Pepper’ was “better than 80 per cent of the music around today”, did go on to write, “when the Beatles work as a whole is viewed in retrospect, it will be ‘Rubber Soul’ and ‘Revolver’ which stand as their major contributions.”

Goldstein went on to draw attention to the recent work of the Rolling Stones, the Fugs, Love, the Doors, the Beach Boys and the Mothers of Invention, not suggesting that ‘Sgt. Pepper’ was a plagiarised work but highlighting that it did not exist in isolation. Something that Dick Taylor of the Pretty Things also pointed out, “It wasn’t in a vacuum. There was certainly other things – Pink Floyd, the Doors—in fact I saw The Doors at UFO. Then there was the Byrds and Jefferson Airplane. They were the ones who a lot of people were listening to and I must admit there was a little bit of, “Oh, the Beatles’, because of their previous career, ‘oh, they’re not as hip as some of this other stuff.’ Even when they brought out ‘Pepper’. Were they almost, in a sense, jumping on a bandwagon themselves? There was a little bit of that and people saying things like, ‘Oh, I love Spirit’ or something like that, rather than wanting to love the obvious, which still goes on really.”

In 1995, Paul McCartney himself backed up the viewpoint that ‘Sgt. Pepper’ did not exist in a vacuum. “The mood of the album was in the spirit of the age, because we ourselves were fitting into the mood of the time. The idea wasn’t to do anything to cater for that mood – we happen to be in that mood anyway. And it wasn’t just the general mood of the time that was influencing us; I was searching for references that were more on the fringe of things.

There was definitely a movement of people. All I’m saying is: we weren’t really trying to cater for that movement – we were just being part of it, as we always had been. I maintain the Beatles weren’t the leaders of the generation, but the spokesmen. We were only doing what the kids in the art schools were all doing.”

The importance of the individual Beatles taking the time to embrace London’s underground movement, Indian culture and philosophy, musique-concrete and (through its cover) pop-art, cannot be underestimated when considering ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ creation.

It can be argued that other Beatles albums hold better songs and that other groups produced albums containing heavier rock, sweeter harmonies, more socially-conscious lyrics and superior psychedelic imagery in 1967. It is difficult however to argue that any other group produced an album as diverse, innovative, enthralling and imaginative as Sgt. Pepper – a true mirror of its age.






Sounds Magazine: ‘Popscene’: 25 Years Since The Blur Single Than Kick Started Britpop



Popscene’: 25 Years Since The Blur single that kick started Britpop

Twenty-five years ago this month, during a time when a bands place in the UK singles chart mattered, Blur released ‘Popscene’ – a single whose chart performance almost signaled the end of the road for the group and have them lodged in musical history as little more than a 1990s one hit wonder.
Sounds Magazine’s Michael Halpin spoke to those around Blur in 1992 to hear a tale of record company disagreements, music press backlash, a disastrous tour of America, financial mismanagement and fighting against the tidal wave of grunge in the UK.

News Team | sounds magazine

As ‘Popscene’ crept to a disappointing number 32 in the UK singles chart less than one year after the dizzying success of ‘There’s No Other Way’, one could have been forgiven for assuming that Blur’s days were numbered. For Damon and co however, ‘Popscene’ became the song that not only lit the fuse for them becoming one of the most important British band of the 90s, but also paved the way for a youth movement that would change the course of both independent and popular music in the UK for years to come.
In April 1991, on the coattails of the Manchester/baggy scene, a scene that they were never really a part of (the majority of the band hail from Colchester for a start), Blur’s top ten hit, ‘There’s No Other Way’, propelled them onto not only Top of The Pops but also found them briefly adorning the inner pages of pre-pubescent pop mag, Smash Hits.
Four months after ‘There’s No Other Way’, Blur’s debut album ‘Leisure’ reached number 7 in the UK album chart but if ‘Leisure’s’ chart performance was something to be celebrated, the reviews were not. At this point, Blur appeared to be a band of little substance, cashing in on a movement that was already past its sell by date. NME journalist Andrew Collins commented in his review of ‘Leisure’, “It ain’t the future. Blur are merely the present of rock ‘n’ roll” suggesting Blur were simply feeding off the scraps of baggy. Alexis Petredis, writing for the long forgotten Lime Lizard had similar reservations, “on the evidence of this album they don’t appear to know what they’re doing and as a result make appalling mistakes all over the place.”
Speaking to Sounds, Andy Ross, the man who signed Blur to Food Records along with the labels founder David Balfe, saw the bands debut in a different light however, “I think that for a young group to do their first album, what do you expect? They’d only been going a couple of years. What you get with a first album is the-best-of-so-far. They were signed when they were about 20 and the record came out when they were about 21 or 22. It is a bit all over the place but I don’t really consider that to be a failing. It was a top 10 album which a lot of people got very jealous of at the time”.
As Blur toured ‘Leisure’ around the UK during the second half of 1991 the baggy scene was breathing its last with leading lights The Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses losing their momentum, while the baggy scenes also-rans fell quickly by the wayside. More telling in Blur’s case however was the fact that on the date that they landed in America for their first U.S. tour, a little known alternative rock band from Seattle called Nirvana released their second album ‘Nevermind’. In his autobiography ‘A Bit of a Blur’ Alex James calls ‘Nevermind’ “the most significant American record of the decade” and states that on that day, the 24th September 1991, “the world changed”.
The last thing American’s alternative rock buying public needed on the 24th September 1991 was a half-baked British debut album with the apathy laden lyrics of ‘There’s No Other Way’, when they could listen to the vitriolic, gut wrenching cries of Kurt Cobain. Blur were definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time.
While Nirvana and grunge took hold of the white-trash, disaffected youth of America it killed baggy stone dead in the UK. The soundtrack to the post-Manchester comedown, which ran alongside grunge, was the gloomy, apologetic, introspective, confidence baron scene: shoegazing. A phrase coined by Food Records boss and former Sounds writer Andy Ross to describe bands who did exactly that; gaze at their shoes whilst performing. Bands such as Ride, Slowdrive and Swervedriver took the template of My Bloody Valentine’s ethereal, spacious, droning aesthetic and ran with it full pelt. It appeared that the swagger and buoyancy of the Manchester scene had been crushed over night.
Not only was the shoegazing scene introspective, the bands around shoegazing were often seen as being a self-indulgent clique. This was no more evident than at Syndrome a weekly club night that took place every Thursday on London’s Oxford Street. Dubbed by Melody Maker as ‘The Scene That Celebrates Itself’ the majority of its attendees were bands themselves. Bands who fell specifically into the shoegazing pigeon hole along with those who found themselves on the periphery of its social scene such as The Senseless Things, Lush and with their not-saying-very-much-at-all lyrical content on ‘Leisure’, Blur.
Blur’s Alex James gave his memories of Syndrome to John Harris in ‘The Last Party’: “Jared (the in-house DJ) would play everybody who was there’s record and you’d check out who was dancing: you knew they were your mates if they danced to your record.” After a short while, Blur simply did not fit in at Syndrome and the jealousy of Blur scoring a top ten album became apparent according to Andy Ross. “We all used to hang around in the same little clubs in Camden and London and so it was a very little, incestuous world. Syndrome and all the little petty politics that was going on in that small world just spilled over. It was all going swimmingly but at the time the music press didn’t like success at all and as soon as the press considered Blur too big for their boots they started to pick holes in them.”
Within the atmosphere of both the music press and The Scene That Celebrates Itself crowd turning against Blur, Damon Albarn set to work on his most direct piece of songwriting to date. Debuted in Blur’s live set at the Kilburn National Ballroom on the 24th October 1991, ‘Popscene’ was written as a thinly veiled swipe at both The Scene That Celebrated Itself and Syndrome. Set to be Blur’s next single, ‘Popscene’s’ lyrics, “Everyone is a clever clone, a chrome clever clone am I’ and ‘hey, hey, come out tonight, Popscene, alright!” may well have found several of Syndrome’s shoe-gazers feeling a tad paranoid as well as finding their shoelaces even more interesting than usual. Damon’s frustration around Britain’s independent music scene (and Syndrome in particular) reared its head again when he was interviewed by the NME months later whilst promoting ‘Popscene’. “There’s a noisy indie group on Top Of the Pops every week now. All looking very satisfied with their Number 18.” For the first time it appeared that Blur, and Damon in particular, were on a crusade to give British indie a much-needed jolt.
The brief flirtation that Blur had with teen-pop magazine Smash Hits however, mainly due to Damon’s photogenic nature, meant that the band found themselves to be having something of an identity crisis by late 1991. They were too popular for the elitist end of music press yet they were already far too angular to be deemed a fully blown pop group.
This musical no-man’s-land that Blur found themselves in only became more difficult to deal with during the early months of 1992. Blur’s manager during this period, Mike Collins, who had previously worked with Wire and was therefore no stranger to managing a successful band, became guilty of some serious financial miscalculations, eventually resulting in Blur being landed with a £60,000 VAT bill. Alex James in ‘A Bit of a Blur’ said, “It turned out that quite a lot of bills remained unpaid. We owed everybody money. We brought in new accountants, who told us we were staring bankruptcy in the face and were facing prison if we couldn’t come up with the cash to pay the VAT.”

Mike Collins was promptly sacked and David Balfe pulled the necessary strings in order to drag Blur out of the mire. “Mike Collins was a lovely guy who basically cocked up doing all the paperwork.” Balfe told Sounds. “He couldn’t face everybody to admit it and ran away. Nobody could find him! So I sorted things out with a lawyer and an accountant and found them a new manager.”
Blur’s new manager, Chris Morrison’s first action was to set the band up on an American tour in order to raise the £60,000 to clear the debt. Morrison struck a deal with a T-shirt company and signed Blur up for a 44-date, three month tour whereby Blur simply needed to sell enough t-shirts to clear their debt. Although Blur were virtually unknown in the U.S. their label-mates Jesus Jones weren’t, having scored a number one single with ‘Right Here, Right Now’ the previous Summer. With this in mind, SBK, who were both Blur and Jesus Jones’ record label in the States, had no choice but to finance Blur’s tour.
David Balfe: “When things are going well for a band and you’ve got the momentum going forward, something like that just tends to be a hiccup in the road. They owed a bit of money but because the prospects were looking good, we dealt with it temporarily and everything was okay. So it wasn’t a big deal. If their last single had got nowhere and people were talking about dropping them, it would have been cataclysmic for them.”
With this ‘hiccup in the road’ dealt with ‘temporarily’, it appears that Food Records at least still had faith in the band even if certain factions of the music press did not. With this in the background, Blur went into the studio to record their new single, ‘Popscene’.
“What happened was, they were writing stuff that was poppy but they weren’t really a pop band,” ‘Popscene’ producer Steve Lovell told Sounds. “They were an alternative pop band. Smash Hits’ audience was starting to get into them and they were becoming something they didn’t want to become. They wanted to claw a bit of creditability and get back to their original wall of sound because that’s what they had. Playing live they were really exciting and raw and anarchic and they were concerned that they were going in the wrong direction, so they came to me and they said, ‘we want to make a different sort of record, we just want to claw something back’ and that’s how we did ‘Popscene.”
With much of Blur’s musical influence being rooted in the likes of The Jam, The Specials, Madness and The Teardrop Explodes, in retrospect it is of little surprise that a horn section was added to ‘Popscene’, in late 1991/early 1992 however a horn section had rarely been heard on a pop/rock record in the previous ten years.
Steve Lovell: “What you’ve got to realise is that Damon and Graham were massive Julian Cope fans. One of Damon’s all-time-favourite-albums is ‘Fried’, which I produced. So perhaps that was influential in him using the horns. I thought they really worked. They added a real power, an Englishness and that’s what that whole period was all about. It was like arresting music because a lot of people, in the way they sing in terms of accents, was Americanised and the lyrics could be slanted towards that. Then suddenly you were getting people writing stuff about English culture, singing in English voices and ‘Popscene’ was very much the start of it. ‘Popscene’ was very much a kicking against what was happening at the time and Damon being quite cynical about it.”
Andy Ross: “Prior to the recording of ‘Popscene’ we went through a really rough patch and what we felt we needed was some change of direction. The band came up with ‘Popscene’ and I thought, ‘this is just amazing, a really ground breaking song. It’s going to be huge and the band will be enormous and conquer the world. It’ll be a doddle but it turned out to be a disaster really.”
‘Popscene’ appeared to be too English for the Grunge market and too heavy the pop market, and with BBC Radio 1 still wallowing in its pre-Matthew Bannister-shake-up-period, those championing ‘Popscene’ were few and far between.
Blur’s appearance on the cover of the NME on 4th April 1992 may have served the band well had ‘Popscene’s’ reviews been kind. Unfortunately, they were anything but. Single releases within the pages of the NME that particular week were being reviewed by special guests The Beastie Boys who, according to the NME, argued about whether ‘Popscene’ was being played at the correct speed whilst they listened to it. Melody Maker was equally critical calling it ‘a directionless organ-fest in search of a decent chorus.’ The fact that the reviewer seems to have mistaken the horn section for a Hammond organ probably said more about the reviewer than it did the track itself.
Upon reading ‘Popscene’s’ reviews, producer Steve Lovell doubted the decisions he had made whilst recording the track. “My roots were in noisy guitars and that punk ethic and ‘Popscene’ was very much from that perspective for me. That was my background and maybe I’d been irresponsible, maybe this wasn’t the right direction for them.”
On the Sunday following its release, ‘Popscene’ only managed to limp to number 32 on the Official UK Chart. Inevitably the mood in and around the band was downbeat.
Steve Lovell: “Damon didn’t want to be 32 in the charts, no matter what he said. He wanted to be number one.” Lovell himself was not surprised by the tracks poor chart performance however, “Obviously, when you do something, you want it to be popular. There’s always that there but if you listen to that track and look at that video and think of what they’d done before, you can’t imagine them taking a big part of their audience along with them. You can imagine teen-y sort of girls looking at it and going, ‘what the hell is this?’ It was so different, so I wasn’t surprised. I think the record company on the other hand weren’t too happy.”
If Steve Lovell was concerned that he had been irresponsible upon ‘Popscene’s’ failure, Food Records founder Dave Balfe was worried for the bands future. “When you’ve got a new band and they’ve had a big hit, you always think, ‘is this a one-hit-wonder’. You always want the latest single to be doing bigger than the previous one and if it ever goes (in the chart) less you think, ‘well if this drops twenty places, maybe the next ones going to be in the 50s and the one after that the 70s.”
Andy Ross told Sounds how both he and the band expected ‘Popscene’ to fair far better than number 32. “My expectation, and certainly the bands, was that it was going to be top ten and that and it was going to be huge. We were so confident about it that we had a song that was the second part of the attack called ‘Never Clever’ which was in a similar-ish vein and we thought, ‘well that’s a good tune too so we’ll have a whopping great hit with ‘Popscene’ and quickly get in with another belter…except that ‘Popscene’ didn’t connect at all and at that time we thought, ‘we’ve just got to stop.’ We didn’t really have a plan-B.”
Following the failure of ‘Popscene’ Blur set out on an eleven-date UK tour entitled ‘Rollercoaster’ where they accompanied My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr and The Jesus and Mary Chain on a 1960s style package tour. Blur very much being the pop element of the line-up.
In the lead up to Rollercoaster, Damon gave a telling interview to the NME’s Stuart Maconie in which he bemoaned the lack of ambition within British Indie with his quote on ‘noisy guitar groups looking very satisfied with their number 18.’ He also discussed his own musical discoveries over the previous twelve months. “I hadn’t bought a record until a year ago. Then I started going out with my current girlfriend and she had a massive record collection and as I started to buy them, slowly I began to find things out. I began to see all these little coincidences where we were linked with bands that we worshipped. And I began to realise that fuck, we are something. We are part of a heritage of British bands, we are somebody.”

News Team

The ‘current girlfriend’ that Damon referred to was Justine Frischmann who at this point was both the former rhythm guitarist in Suede and the ex-girlfriend of Suede front man Brett Anderson.
Speaking to ‘The Last Party’ author John Harris, Justine Frischmann told Harris that ‘a plan was hatched’ to create a much needed British response to grunge. “Somewhere along the line, it occurred to us that Nirvana were out there, and people were very interested in American music, and there should be some sort of manifesto for the return of Britishness. We didn’t think that Nirvana said anything to us about our lives. I wasn’t remotely interested. That’s where the manifesto came from.”
A manifesto that came just as Blur were about to set out on their mind-boggling thirteen week tour of the United States. Inevitably, the tour only served to highlight the disdain Albarn felt for all things American. “I missed people queuing up in shops, I missed people saying ‘goodnight’ on the BBC. I missed having at least 15 minutes between commercial breaks. And I missed people having respect for my geographical roots, because Americans don’t care if you’re from Inverness or Land’s End. I missed everything about England,” Damon also told John Harris in ‘The Last Party.’
As Blur played to a bunch of genuinely uninterested American audiences, the band found nothing better to do than consume as much alcohol as possible. “We were drinking obsessively” Damon told Stuart Maconie in Blur biography ‘3862 Days’. “Ridiculous amounts of booze every day…it was relentless and depressing.” Graham Coxon told Maconie that the band were ‘very, very close to imploding’ at that point.
Each Blur member would be drunk during radio interviews in which stations would assume the band were from Manchester. Dave Rowntree told Maconie that at one point ‘every member of the band had a black eye’ through fighting with each other.
On 24th May 1992, Blur found themselves in Atlanta staying in the same hotel as The Beastie Boys. Blur contacted the Beastie Boys rooms and invited them out for a drink, only to be promptly told to ‘fuck off’. It appeared that Blur were not wanted on either side of the Atlantic.
The annoyance and contempt that Damon felt for both grunge and American culture flooding into Britain only heightened during the U.S. tour. The melting pot of shopping malls, fast food and theme pubs only increased Damon’s desire to remind people of the importance of both British music and British culture.
When Blur’s American tour finally ended in Orlando on 29th May, one would have assumed that the band could return to Britain to rest, take stock and set to work on Damon’s desire to get rid of grunge. Blur returned only to find that Suede, having released their debut single ‘The Drowners’ two weeks before, were being lauded in the music press as the best new band in Britain.
Andy Ross: “Suede had come on the scene and the press decided that they were the new darlings and called them ‘The Best New Band in Britain’. Damon had nicked Brett Anderson’s girlfriend so there was a lot of animosity between the two bands. The press decided that we were the bad guys and Suede were the people’s champions. For those reasons Damon had added incentive to get back into the fray.”
Just as Suede were becoming the darlings of the music press and grunge was huge on both sides of the Atlantic, what Damon should have been doing – stealing British kids away from grunge and getting them to take notice of British music again, was being done by his girlfriends-ex.
Although Albarn would be loath to admit it, in their own way Suede too were reclaiming a sense of Britishness in their music, albeit more slanted towards the glam-rock leanings of the early 70s. “I think the whole Suede thing was very much to do with Britishness” Justine Frischmann told John Harris, “and I carried that scene onto Damon and told him about it and he took it a step further.”
Blur had little choice at this point but to carry on regardless. A selection of European Summer Festival dates was followed by one genuinely disastrous gig on 23rd July 1992 when Blur found themselves on the same bill as Suede for a benefit gig in aid of the homeless charity Shelter at London’s Town and Country Club. Blur were the gigs headliners, followed by Suede as the main support. Blur spent the day getting drunk in Camden haunt, The Good Mixer and were well and truly legless by the time they took to the stage. Albarn’s opening line to the audience that evening: “We’re so fuckin’ shit, you might as well go home now. This could be the worst gig you’ve ever seen.” Suede by comparison, are said to have played an astonishing set.

The following day Blur were summoned to David Balfe’s Food Records office in Camden where they were told that after the failure of ‘Popscene’, their disastrous American tour and now their drunken escapade at the Town and Country Club, that one more step out of line and they would be dropped by the label.  Their career, in effect, over.

With their tails between their legs, Blur set to work on recording their second album in the Autumn of 1992. Tentatively entitled ‘England Vs America’ before the less confrontational title ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ was arrived at.

An attempt to use former XTC member Andy Partridge as producer was quickly shelved before the band eventually began working with the producer of much of their early work, Stephen Street.

In the December, Food Records’ executives Andy Ross and David Balfe arrived at Maison Rouge Studios to listen to what the band had recorded so far. “Damon pretty much wrote the basis of what was to become ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ ” Andy Ross says. “He presented it to us just before Christmas ’92. That’s when David Balfe lost his relationship with the band and fair play to him. He stuck his neck out and said that there weren’t any singles on the record and he was quite right. He was prepared to confront Damon and say, ‘we can’t take this into EMI, it hasn’t got any hit singles on it. Ergo – they’ll drop you.’ He had a fair point and Damon didn’t like that.”
Damon went back to Colchester over the Christmas period and wrote ‘For Tomorrow’ on Christmas morning. Blur then went back into the studio in January 1993 to record it and then presented it to David Balfe. “We went ‘Great! that’s exactly what we’re looking for” says Balfe “and we loved ‘For Tomorrow’. I still think it’s one of their greatest ever singles but then the American record label said, ‘we need a second hit single’ and the band got totally fucked off with us at that point but then Damon went away and wrote ‘Chemical World.”
Andy Ross describes ‘For Tomorrow’ and ‘Chemical World’ as ‘saving the bands bacon pretty much.’ “They were both modest hits and they were sufficient to put them back in play really and also reposition themselves from being see as southern art school twats to being seen as valid songwriters. You know, it was a bit Kinks-y, there’s no question about that but then all of a sudden the whole concept of this record made sense. It all sounded as though it clung together as a body of work.”
In the April of 1993, ‘For Tomorrow’ was indeed released as a single. It reached number 26 in the UK charts and although fairing slightly better than ‘Popscene’, Blur were still deemed uncool. NME and Melody Maker were none too enamoured with ‘For Tomorrow’ and although acknowledging that Blur were trying something new, neither publication seemed to understand the stance or direction that the band were taking.
Blur drummer Dave Rowntree said in 3862 Days: “The British music press had turned away from anything going on in Britain. Nothing in England counted and that really pissed us off. It’s one thing to be called crap, but it’s another to not even think you’re counted, not important enough.”
The following month, as promotion began for the release of ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’, Blur found themselves the victims of misplaced outrage after the NME accused the band of flirting with fascist imagery. The image in question was one of Blur dressed in Doctor Marten’s, Fred Perry t-shirts and turned up jeans with a Great Dane on a short leash and the phrase ‘British Image 1’ sprayed on the wall behind them. The image gained a reaction similar to that aimed at Morrissey when he danced, Union Jack in hand, during a gig in Finsbury Park the previous Summer.
Blur’s re-appropriation of Britishness was gaining the wrong kind reaction before it had even had chance to breathe. In actual fact the image was a reaction against the self-pity and self-loathing of grunge. What Blur were aligning themselves with was positive, exuberant, driven and through Albarn’s lyrics, both cheeky and humorous. Their image was clipped and angular; taking in mod, rude boy and skinhead (before skinhead became a dirty word). It was all that was great about British pop culture and it was everything that Blur had consumed over the last eighteen months.
On10th May 1993, ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ was finally released. The artistic statement meaning more than the actual sum of the albums parts, the image and aesthetic around the album being far more relevant than some of the music. Reviews in the music press were favourable without being ecstatic. The album peaked at number 15 and the murmur of a turning tide in British youth culture was bubbling somewhere beneath the surface.
Blur’s tour in support of ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ unexpectedly became a sell out. Alex James said in ‘3862 Days’, “We played in Italy and Kids turned up on mopeds. The mods had arrived.”
Chris Morrison: “It was a strange situation because although no single went above 25 in the chart, things felt like they were moving forward.”
The turning point in Blur’s career for many was at 1993’s Reading Festival. On Saturday 28th August, as The The delivered a particularly self-indulgent set on the main stage 10,000 people packed into the Melody Maker tent to watch Blur.
“They were astonishingly good and everyone was just raving about them,” Andy Ross told Sounds while Alex James in ‘A Bit of a Blur’ called the show ‘probably the most important gig we ever played.’
After the gig a jubilant Damon Albarn found himself back at the Ramada Hotel flanked by the editors of both Melody Maker and NME. Suddenly the music press wanted to know Blur after eighteen months of nonchalance towards them.
Andy Ross: “Just after Reading, and this is five months after the album came out, Select Magazine put them on the front cover for no apparent reason other than saying, ‘oops, we all missed out here, we fucked up. We didn’t champion this album but they are great and we should acknowledge that now.”
In the September, filled with a newfound confidence in what they were doing, Blur went back into the studio and began recording what became their real career-changing album, ‘Parklife.’ Songs like ‘Bank Holiday’, ‘Girls and Boys’ and the albums title track were already being aired at Blur gigs during the latter part of 1993.
By the latter part of 1994 Blur would be the most popular, and through ‘Parklife’, the most critically acclaimed band in the country. Without ‘Popscene’ being in place to kick start both Blur’s change of direction and what became known as Britpop, the likes of Pulp, Elastica, Oasis, Supergrass, Dodgy, The Boo Radleys (etc etc etc) would have, without doubt, experienced their musical careers in a very different way.


Louder Than War: English Tapas by Sleaford Mods – Album Review



Sleaford Mods – English Tapas

(Rough Trade Records)


Available Now

Louder Than War’s Michael Halpin review the latest release by arguably the most important act in Britain.

It is unfair to say that Sleaford Mods first album for Rough Trade Records, and their ninth in total, is more of the same but while Jason Williamson is still angry at 21st Century Britain, ‘English Tapas’ picks up where 2015’s ‘Key Markets’ left off.  Please understand however that this is no bad thing.  This time round Williamson either mocks or is irritated by the following: Gym going fitness fanatics, hipsters, Boris Johnson, Ringo Starr, coke-heads, the Superdry clothing label, televisions in pubs, the NME and Philip Green.

Williamson’s outrageously prolific tirades do not necessarily become diluted but from a musical point of view, Sleaford Mods may be in danger of becoming predictable, mainly due to their stripped back approach.  One suspects however that Williamson and his musical counterpart Andrew Fearn are not concerned with the dangers of becoming predictable or diluted, they are simply needing to release this material and needing to rail at all that agitates them in post-Brexit Britain.  For starters, someone’s got to do it and for some inexplicable reason, it seems to be left to the 46-year-old Williamson; such is the lack of concern coming from the majority of musicians the right side of 30.

The fact Sleaford Mods create at such a prolific rate means that suddenly we have a band who hark back to the days when the likes of The Specials, The Jam and The Clash would write and release material relating to what was happening within Britain at that very moment – a part of British music that seems to have been lost as record labels consider marketing strategies ahead of creative relevance and art.

The Opening track on ‘English Tapas’, ‘Army Nights’, is a touch unsettling in a 1970s-Carry-On-film-kind-of-way as Williamson tells a Ray Davies/Damon Albarn-esque tale of what seems to be an army fitness instructor with a penchant for getting his muscles squeezed in his caravan at night.

‘Just Like We Do’ begins with Williamson mocking the pretentiousness of a certain type of musician, “I’m currently listening to rustic noise recorded in 1982 in the Black Forest in Germany” and appears to be a rant at an ex-punk who Williamson at least, deems to be a has-been.  “Punks not dead, well, it is now, or does no-one care about you?”

‘Moptop’ opens with the amusing line, “Do you mind? You biffed my nose” and does not sound a million miles away from Basil Brush before morphing into a Boris Johnson baiting outburst.  ‘Messy Anywhere’ takes a swipe at the stupidity of the weekend-coke-habit, “Lets spend another hundred quid on getting out of our trees” and “we get all messy anywhere, we go late.”  Williamson sneering at those coke-confident individuals he openly admits to being one of in the late 90s.

‘Snout’, the best song on the album, bemoans what sounds like a cocaine induced pyjama purchase before appearing enraged about the Superdry clothing label becoming “the armour of the working class!”

‘Drayton Manored’ is a tale of a stoned trip to the shops, “a trip to spar is like a trip to Mars!” while ‘Carlton Touts’ addresses the paranoia of British pubs being open all day and brainwashing its regulars with 24 hour BBC News.

‘Dull’ is disenchanted with Ringo Starr publicly stating that he voted for Brexit (granted he was never the brightest Beatle, but still…) before Williamson seethingly asks the listener to, “try scrolling down a website, the NME, without laughing“ and this line, mocking what was once arguably the centre piece of British alternative music, sums up the crux of ‘English Tapas’.  It seems that Williamson, like many, is exasperated, not only by life in Britain in 2017 but also by the demise of what were once vital elements of British culture.

‘English Tapas’ may not be the best album Sleaford Mods have produced but while they seem to be the only artists in Britain willing to speak out with passion about what is happening in the UK in 2017, it seems trivial to criticise them.

Sleaford Mods are on both Facebook and Twitter  They can also be found at their website


Words by Michael Halpin.  You can find more of Michael’s writing on Louder Than War at his author’s archive.



Louder Than War: Little Fictions by Elbow – Album Review





Elbow – Little Fictions (Polydor Records)
Available now

Louder Than War’s Michael Halpin reviews Elbow’s first album in three years and its one of their best.

Elbow’s first album since 2014’s The Take Off And Landing Of Everything is an eyebrow raising affair. Yes, all of the elements of what makes Elbow so endearing are there; Guy Garvey’s soaring vocals, a slightly off the wall musical blend and those bittersweet lyrics that can draw both a smile and a tear in the same breath.

Little Fictions is the bands first album since the departure of drummer and founding member Richard Jupp, and the emphasis placed on drums on Little Fictions is testament to the importance of Jupp’s role within the band.

In a recent interview with Radio X, Guy Garvey described Jupp as ‘someone who can never be replaced’ and this is very much true. Keyboard player and producer Craig Potter sampled a selection of drummers and created his own drum-loops for Little Fictions rather than drafting in a super-sub to replace Jupp. It is surprising therefore how drum-heavy Little Fictions is. It would have been easy for Craig Potter to simply bury the drums in the mix or use a replacement without too much of a song-and-dance but instead Potter has stripped back the bands sound, made the drums a focal point and given the rhythm section at least, something of a hip-hop feel in parts.

The touching opener, Magnificent (She Says), written while Garvey was on honeymoon in Sardinia, is followed by the bands next single Gentle Storm and almost like the songs title suggests, it holds both a groove and a tranquillity at its core.

Trust The Sun is intriguing and mysterious in a similar vein to The Fix from 2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid and Garvey’s lyric, “An eye for an eye for an eye for an eye” is sinister and unsettling and touches on the paranoia of 21st century living.

Mark Potters guitar rarely comes to fore on Little Fictions but when it does on All Disco, his shimmering, pedal-tone riff is a welcoming noise which gives All Disco an uplifting, smile inducing feel and leaves you wondering, ‘Is this Elbow’s most uplifting album to date?’

The mix of drums, piano and very little else appears again on Firebrand and Angel and as Garvey delivers the unusual line, “Fella interstellar” one wonders if he’s had a quick peek in Alex Turner’s notebook; so Turner-esque is the delivery. That aside, one aspect of Firebrand And Angel that is all Garvey’s is his vocal delivery and as he grippingly reaches his upper register on Firebrand, it becomes clear that the UK has not produced many voices as distinctive and pure as Garvey’s in the last 20 years.

Described by Garvey as ‘being inspired by violence and negativity’, the strangely hypnotic K2 delivers the best lyrics on the album and if Alex Turner may have been channelled on Firebrand and Angel, then it’s just as likely that John Cooper Clarke has been channelled on K2.  “I’m from a land with an island status, makes us think that everyone hates us, maybe darling they do, but they haven’t met you” and as K2 carries on, “It’s full of blood, snot and teeth and the glory of no one” it becomes clear that this is by far the moodiest song on the album until, in true Elbow style, an element of hope is thrown in, “Yes I’m given to believing in love” Garvey croons and this, more than anything else, seems to be the crux of Little Fictions.  Yes, everything is a bit shit in the UK in 2017 but there should always be that element of hope to hold onto.

Elbow’s seventh studio album is not without its faults however and although the criticism is minor, Head for Supplies, as tranquil and soothing as it may be, does works less well in comparison to the rest of the album while Montparnasse suffers from being all too brief.  That aside, Little Fictions is the most beautiful album Elbow have made in years.

The albums title track segues into Kindling with a brief White Album style three-note-noodle to form a twelve-minute-and-forty-one-seconds ending. Do not fear though, the segue doesn’t grate, it isn’t free jazz and it isn’t repetitive.  The drums could belong to both The Velvet Underground and Massive Attack at the same time but the feeling is essentially that of a British kitchen sink drama.  This is without doubt the albums centre piece.  The strings are scratchy, the guitar off-kilter, it’s all intriguingly messy but with Garvey’s voice soaring at the centre it somehow works beautifully.

“The papers upside down, the radio’s in Chinese” Garvey laments during the title track as though he’s in some sort of bizarre cross between ‘Saturday Night And Sunday Morning’ and Jonathan Miller’s version of Alice In Wonderland but then, as the beautiful Kindling kicks in we hear what must be the most heart-warming set of lyrics ever written about a cramped train and a mobile phone.  “Fifty souls to a carriage, I’m trying hard to be ignored, then my telephone shakes into life and I see your name, and the wheat fields explode into gold either side of the train.”

A lovely guitar figure, a hint of band chat and it’s over.

Little Fictions on the whole, is enthralling and uplifting, spacious and bare, moving and life affirming. Sixteen years since their debut album and Elbow still haven’t made a bad one.  Losing a member after twenty-five-years could have signalled a stumble along their journey but instead they have managed to face Jupp’s departure head on. Somehow Elbow just never seem to fail.



Words by Michael Halpin.  You can find more of Michael’s writing on Louder Than War at his author’s archive


Record Collector Magazine: January 2017 – Paul Simon @ Manchester Apollo


Paul Simon
Manchester O2 Apollo
10th November, 2016

View: seated, centre

Before playing, the legendary 75-year-old was greeted with an ovation. Opening with The Boy In The Bubble, Simon’s vocals were low in the mix, and backing vocals from the nine musicians on-stage would’ve enhanced them. Heavy on solo material, the set moved along with Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover, before the first of several wonderful anecdotes. Enjoying himself, Simon’s renditions of Homeward Bound and America followed, before the hits, Mother And Child Reunion, You Can Call Me Al and Still Crazy After All These Years.
Simon concluded a second encore with The Boxer, before a final flourish of American Tune. Disappointing for casual fans, but diehards remain in awe.

Reviewed by Michael Halpin


Live Review: Louder Than War: James & The Charlatans. Echo Arena, Liverpool – 10th December 2016



James | The Charlatans

Echo Arena, Liverpool

10th December 2016

As two bands so strongly linked with the city of Manchester descended upon Liverpool’s Echo Arena, Louder Than War’s Michael Halpin went along to take it all in.

The Charlatans: Although some debate may have ensued regarding who should have been headlining this double header between James and The Charlatans, The Charlatans opening trio of songs argued a strong case to suggest that the running order was indeed incorrect.

‘Weirdo’ recalled just what The Charlatans do best – playing the underdog and coming out on top. ‘North Country Boy’ is such a crowd pleaser that it was never likely to fail while ‘Just When You’re Thinking Things Over’ grooved along defiantly giving the impression, for the moment at least, that the core of what makes The Charlatans great is still very much intact. Further to this, ‘Just When You’re Thinking Things Over’ was sung with such purpose by the seemingly ageless Tim Burgess, that despite nervous breakdowns, drug abuse, financial embezzlement, jail sentences and the untimely death of two key members, The Charlatans really do appear to be indestructible. Moving into ‘So Oh’ from last years ‘Modern Nature’ album lost the audiences attention however, while ‘Blackened Blue Eyes’ and ‘Let The Good Times Be Never Ending’ did not do enough to win them back, in spite of Tim Burgess’ efforts.

Like ‘North Country Boy’, ‘One To Another’ and ‘The Only One I Know’ were only ever going to gain a positive reaction and of the bands newer material, ‘Come Home Baby’, which followed, faired the strongest.

Following ‘Come Home Baby’, Tim Booth and Andy Diagram from James joined The Charlatans onstage. It was all big hugs, big grins and backslapping before Tim Burgess introduced the number they were about to perform as being “by four lads from Liverpool who shook the world”. One instantly knew that this was not going to be a Beatles cover, that would be too easy. Instead, the audience was treated to a version of Echo and The Bunnymen’s ‘Rescue’ which disappointingly seemed to be enjoyed far more by those on stage rather than the audience. As ‘Rescue’ briefly morphed into The Doors ‘L.A. Woman’, much was won back and at this point The Charlatans created the most musically powerful moment of their set. Typically concluding with their usually anthemic ‘Sproston Green’, this performance appeared to be slightly lethargic and it felt, to a degree, like the band were going through the motions. Closing your set with the same song for pretty much the last twenty-five years may well do that though.

One of The Charlatans strengths has always been their ability to win over an audience that has not been solely theirs, and despite such a promising start, that strength did not appear to be there this evening.

James: Aside from Tim Booth’s bizarrely oversized pants, the first thought when he opened his mouth at the Echo Arena was, ‘now there is a fella who can really sing!’ Contemporaries such as Tim Burgess, Ian Brown, Shaun Ryder or Tom Hingley have never come close to the vocal talent of Tim Booth and from the off it is clear that a) James have always been slightly different from other bands of their generation and b) there is absolutely no question whatsoever as to who should be headlining tonight’s gig.

Tim Booth’s vocals simply soared over the audience during ‘Waltzing Along’ and the immediate feeling is that watching an older and wiser James is a beautiful, uplifting and life-affirming experience.

Tim Booth’s zen-like demeanor contradicts his still wonderful dance moves, whilst he carries a grin that cannot help but give off genuine good vibes. When all of these factors are in place, James are pretty much untouchable as a live band.

Following ‘Waltzing Along’ and a superb ‘To My Surprise’, Tim Booth decided that the aptly named ‘Surfer’s Song’ was the ideal opportunity for him to indulge in a good old crowd surf. The strangest part of the whole thing was not that the fact that the 56-year-old can still carry off such a feat, but the fact that he can do it whilst still managing to sing perfectly in tune.

An extremely powerful ‘Ring The Bells’ showed that none of Tim Booth’s vocal prowess has left him. Just as they would time and again tonight, James showed how an exceptional pop/indie-rock band can make thousands of people feel like all is right with the world. Even if it is just for ninety minutes.
The subject matter of ‘Moving On’, addressing the death of Tim Booth’s mother in 2012, would appear to be far removed from making an audience feel like all is right with the world, but as he articulated his feeling that ‘death is like a birth and can be truly beautiful’ the sincerity of his delivery won his audience over. The fact that Booth’s band mates appeared to be keeping a watchful eye on him while he explained ‘Moving On’ only added further weight to the performance and even though he appeared to be communicating some very personal emotions to the audience, Booth appeared to be completely at one while doing so. He certainly seems to be a man comfortable in his own skin. A beautifully executed stripped down version of ‘She’s A Star’ followed, while ‘Johnny Yen’ from 1986’s ‘Stutter’ brought a tear to a fair few eyes.

‘Born Of Frustration’, without Tim Booth and Andy Diagram going walk-about within the audience would have been enough to lift the spirit of any crowd, but as Booth repeatedly cropped up over one side of the arena whilst Diagram the other, the audience (the majority of which were forty-plus) were sent into something of a frenzy.
‘Getting Away With It (All Messed Up)’ and the anthemic ‘Come Home’ both proved that Tim Booth still has the moves and as the clock ticked by, Booth showed nothing to suggest he was running out of the energy required to perform in the manner he does; his youthful exuberance seemingly years away from leaving him.

Like ‘She’s A Star’, a stripped back ‘Just Like Fred Astaire’ worked wonderfully and began James’ encore in fine style. Tim Burgess joined Booth and company for ‘Laid’ even though it was not one hundred percent clear whether or not he knew all of the words, before ‘Sometimes’ became one huge crowd sing-a-long.

Bravely, James ended their set with this years ‘Nothing But Love’ single and managed to pull it off majestically. The heart, soul, emotion, verve and vigour that James communicated tonight meant that in many ways ‘Nothing But Love’ was the perfect ending to a breathtaking set.

It is not at all overboard to say that the performance James gave tonight was not only a celebration of music but also a celebration of life itself.



Words by Michael Halpin. You can find more of Michael’s writing on Louder Than War at his author’s archive

Portrait shot of Tim Booth by Robin Linton, crowd shot by Tina



Album Review for Louder Than War: Hamburg Demonstrations by Peter Doherty



Peter Doherty – Hamburg Demonstrations



Out Now

Peter Doherty, as he is known these days, releases his first solo album in seven years. Is the talent still there? Louder Than War’s Michael Halpin finds out.


Recorded in his Hamburg studio, one would have thought (or hoped) that the prospect of a more level headed Peter Doherty recording an album in one of Europe's most exciting cities could not possibly fail, and although Peter Doherty has not failed exactly, ‘Hamburg Demonstrations’ has not really triumphed either.

The days when the indie community gushed over a half-arsed acoustic Doherty number are over. It was once endearing; now it’s just a bit boring. Although any kind hearted person will be glad that we no longer listen with the concern that the man may not actually make it all the way through the song, at least when he sounded like he meant it, we were willing the guy to keep it together. On ‘Hamburg Demonstrations’ the main problem is that Peter Doherty sounds like his heart isn’t really in it.

Opening number ‘Kolly Kiber’ suffers from having backing vocals that do not appear to fully fit, while ‘Birdcage’ makes you wonder, if Peter Doherty sounds that lethargic that he cannot seem to muster the energy to sing or play properly, why should anybody want to listen properly. The slurred vocal delivery is nowhere near as engaging as when one of British music’s once brightest hopes is on form and willing to sing his heart out.

Lyrically he is still capable of hitting the spot. Lines like “you’re too pretty and I’m too clever” show that the light hasn’t completely gone out but again that glimmer of hope makes ‘Hamburg Demonstrations’ all the more frustrating.

Much of the problem is ‘Hamburg Demonstrations’ incoherent and erratic nature. Some numbers sound half-baked while others, namely ‘Hell To Pay At The Gates Of Heaven’ and ‘I Don’t Love Anyone’ sound beautifully complete, and when you are reminded just how good Peter Doherty can be, it leaves you feeling short changed when he does not quite hit the mark he is known to be capable of.

The call to arms that is ‘Hell To Pay At The Gates Of Heaven’ with the wonderful lyric “Come on boys you gotta choose your weapon, J-45 or AK47”, pleads for the young to form bands rather than join the army and is classic Doherty. ‘I Don’t Love Anyone’ (first version) is also Doherty at his best but quite why we need to hear two versions of the number on such a short album is something of a puzzle.

‘Oily Boker’, ‘A Spy In The House of Love’ and ‘She is Far’ also fair well but the Amy Winehouse tribute in the shape of ‘Flags Of The Old Regime’, however personal it may be to Peter Doherty himself, is simply not an endearing number and it’s not even that the subject matter is painful, it’s more the delivery of the song.

‘Down For The Outing’, aside from a pretty messy guitar solo, passes without much incident, as does ‘The Whole World Is Our Playground’. Did a Libertines song ever pass without incident? Not that I recall.

It goes without saying that Peter Doherty can do better than this. It sounds like he just needs to care enough to do so.

Words by Michael Halpin. You can find more of Michael’s writing on Louder Than War at his author’s archive


Album Review: Louder Than War – Blue & Lonesome by The Rolling Stones



Blue and Lonesome: The Rolling Stones

(Polydor Records)


Released 2nd December 2016

Fifty-two years after the release of their debut, the Rolling Stones career appears have come full circle. Michael Halpin gives his opinion.


Just as their eponymous debut was in 1964, ‘Blue and Lonesome’ in 2016 is an album of blues covers. Recorded in just under two weeks, the only genuine difference between their eponymous debut and ‘Blue and Lonesome’ is that 52 years ago they sounded like young pretenders whereas today they sound like the mythical blues men that they always set out to emulate.

What strikes about ‘Blue and Lonesome’ initially is just how well Mick Jagger plays harmonica. Set aside the showbiz pomp and years of questionable stage attire and marvel at the fact that behind the facade stands a musician who really does know how to play, what is often forgotten to be, his chosen instrument. Each solo, of which there are several, is mesmerising and while it may be glaringly obvious to point out, what is also striking about ‘Blue and Lonesome’ is the fact that the Rolling Stones really know how to play the blues.

Produced by long time cohort Don Was, the album is worth its salt for the simple fact that it captures the essence of the Rolling Stones masterfully. Charlie’s snare cuts through wonderfully throughout, particularly on ‘Ride ‘Em On Down’, while Keith and Ronnie’s infinite love of playing the blues finds them on fine form as their celebrated art of weaving continues. Eric Clapton joins Keith and Ronnie on ‘Everybody Knows About My Good Thing’ and ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’ but it really is Jagger who elevates the album towards something occasionally touching magic. Almost 55-years after he first tried, he now sounds something like an original blues troubadour.

For an individual who notoriously avoids looking back over his career, Jagger appears to be the member of the band enjoying ‘Blue and Lonesome’ the most and one would suspect that this is the reason why the album works as well as it does.

As Jagger hollers “Alright!” before the solo of ‘Just Like I Treat You’ he echoes his “Alright Keith, come on man!” calls from 1964’s ‘Little By Little’, bringing a smile to the face and suggesting that, although no doubt briefly, Mick Jagger really is back at home and while he is, everyone else appears to be right onboard.

Electric Chicago Blues is the crux of ‘Blue and Lonesome’ and the albums title track along with opener ‘Just a fool’, the strutting and sinister ‘All Of Your Love’ and album highlight ‘Hate To See You Go’ all manage to encapsulate the essence of everything the Stones do best.

Their version of Willie Dixon’s ‘I Can’t Quit You Baby’, although fairing less well, does see Jagger hitting the higher register of his vocals in a manner not heard in years, while their cover of Jimmy Reed’s ‘Little Rain’ is slightly workmanlike.

All criticism of ‘Blue and Lonesome’ is relatively minor however as the Stones have recorded an album that is invigorating, exciting, sinister, dark, morose and uplifting all in the same breath, and although it is wise to not lose sight of the fact that this is a covers album, within ‘Blue and Lonesome’ there is evidence of everything that is captivating about the Rolling Stones.

For over forty years, rumours of the Stones calling it a day have circulated but if indeed ‘Blue and Lonesome’ does turns out to be their final recording, it is almost the perfect bookend to where it all began.


Words by Michael Halpin. You can find more of Michael’s writing on Louder Than War at his author’s archive



Record Collector: Live Review – PJ Harvey, Victoria Warehouse, Manchester – 3rd November 2016



PJ Harvey

Manchester Victoria Warehouse


View: standing, middle
PJ Harvey continued to surprise and intrigue in her own unique manner, as brilliantly eccentric as ever, taking the unsettling themes of the Hope Six Demolition Project and masterfully bringing them to life. Opener, Chain Of Keys, was preceded by Harvey’s two drummers playing military drum-rolls, while four songs from Let England Shake were aired in the shape of the title track, Words That Maketh Murder, The Glorious Land and Written On The Forehead.

Despite its haunting falsetto, To Talk To You was workman-like, but Dollar Dollar (with Terry Edwards’ free-form jazz sax solo) brought the magic back into the room. Likewise, The Wheel and The Ministry Of Social Affairs were astonishing, Down By The River gained a huge reaction, while the gothic River Anacostia saw all members of Harvey’s band hypnotically chant the chorus line.

The River and a cover of Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, in which PJ added her own chorus, formed the encore of a fearless artist defiantly treading her own musical path.

Michael Halpin


Live Review: Record Collector Magazine – December 2016 Issue – Primal Scream Live @ The Victoria Warehouse, Manchester



View: standing, stage-right
Straight out of the traps with Moving On Up, Bobby Gillespie was on fine form, though taped backing vocals were less impressive, and vocalist Hannah Marsden, appearing on Where The Light Gets In and Jailbird, offered more style than substance. Accelerator and Shoot Speed/Kill Light also left those not au fait with Primal Scream’s darker side dumbfounded, but none of it mattered as Gillespie and co moved into Screamadelica and the beautiful Damaged. The ease with which they jump from psychopathic krautrock to country-blues says everything about their eclectic nature.

A mesmeric Higher Than The Sun followed, before an extended Swastika Eyes. Loaded was predictably loved-up, while Country Girl drew a wonderfully goofy grin from Gillespie as a mass singalong erupted. Rocks closed the set before an euphoric encore in the form of Come Together.
Not vintage Primal Scream, maybe, but the Glaswegians remain as relevant and unpredictable as they’ve always been.
Reviewed by Michael Halpin