Michael Halpin Journalism


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


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: 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




Louder Than War: Live Review – Sleaford Mods – Academy, Manchester – 27th October 2016

Sleaford Mods

Manchester, Academy

27th October 2016

Britain’s most articulate and outspoken band came to Manchester last Thursday as part of their UK tour. Louder Than War’s Michael Halpin was there to take it all in.

The evening began with a DJ presumably being employed to carry out the wonderful job of winding the audience up. Prior to Sleaford Mods taking to the stage the gathered throng were treated to a selection of cheesy disco “classics”. ‘It’s Raining Men’, ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’, ‘Love Isn’t Always On Time’, ‘The Theme From Friends’…you get the picture. Some members of the audience simply didn’t seem to get the point or appreciate the juxtaposition however. Surely these people didn’t have to be reminded of the purpose behind Sleaford Mods, did they? Sleaford Mods are here to drag us away from the soulless, saccharin cheesy-pop fest that was awful in the 1980s and is just as awful now. They are here to rant and vent against all that is false, against all that is fake. They sing about the state of modern Britain and the state of modern popular culture. Sadly some boys, as well as some girls, in the audience did appear to ‘Just Wanna Have Fun’. That’s fine but those boys and girls are missing the point when it comes to Sleaford Mods.

Fortunately, the majority of the audience tonight do get the point. The evening was a gathering of the sub-culture tribes, each with their own reason for being there. You could spot Indie, Mod, punk, hip-hop, dance…you name it, it was there. The audience was reminiscent of a Glastonbury audience prior to the era when going to Glastonbury simply became the thing to do.

Singer Jason Williamson greeted the Manchester audience with the cry, “You fuckin’ know don’t you?!” and it genuinely felt like they did. Sleaford Mods are that band. The band you can believe in. The important band. The band who actually have something to say. Williamson delivers every single lyric like his life depends on it. Like a man who really could be possessed and this is exactly what 2016 needs. We need another Ian Curtis, Iggy Pop, Johnny Rotten, Joe Strummer. Williamson is more than just a simple amalgamation of those who many of us see as heroes of the working classes. His stage persona hints at Ian Dury, Norman Wisdom, Richard III and Quasimodo. We get Dalek impersonations, Metal Mickey impersonations and impersonations of the robots from the cult 1980s ‘Smash Makes Mash’ adverts. Add to that random sheep noises, genuine wit and the odd blown raspberry and you’re beginning to get the picture.

As Williamson ranted through ‘I Can Tell’, ‘Take It’, ‘Faces’ and ‘Fizzy’ as well as new numbers ‘BHS’ and ‘T.C.R.’, his musical partner in crime Andrew Fearn nodded and bobbed his head along to his no frills laptop and was admirable in his honestly – he was basically pressing play and pressing stop and didn’t care who knew it.


Williamson mocks the debacle of the encore in modern entertainment but managed to wind himself back up instantly to spit out ‘Jobseeker’, ‘Tied up In Nottz’ and ‘Tweet Tweet Tweet’.

Sleaford Mods are a million miles away from the top ten of the UK singles chart. They’re a million miles away from a Brit Award but they say more about the UK and Britain in 2016 than any other artist living in Britain today.

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.

Photos by Melanie Smith. More work by Mel on Louder Than War can be found at her author’s archive. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter. Photography portfolio can be found here and Flickr



Live Review for Louder Than War: Jake Bugg: The O2 Apollo, Manchester – 19th October



Written by michaelhalpin

Manchester, O2 Apollo

19th October 2016

Louder Than War’s Michael Halpin was there…

The public persona of Jake Bugg as a morose, moody and grumpy individual, along with both his Snow Patrol assisted song writing, has left me in an unforgiving mood of late with all that surrounds the Nottingham musician. Throw into the mix the frankly awful ‘On My One’ single from earlier this year and its safe to say that my expectations were low regarding last nights gig.

Opening with the aforementioned ‘On My One’, the chav-tastic title and cringe-worthy opening line, “I’m just a poor boy, from Nottinghuuuummmmm” would leave Bugg’s folk-singing hero Woody Guthrie stone cold. Bugg’s execution of the offending line is almost beyond parody on record and was no better live. Couple with that the fact that his onstage persona vaguely resembled Bob Dylan’s in his ‘Don’t Look Back’ phase, only served to make the heart sink further. While Dylan looked sharp and contemporary in 1965, Bugg appeared casual at best in 2016. Is it ever acceptable for a musician to appear onstage looking so none descript? There was better dressed people at the bar last night!

Aside from the criticisms flanked at the 22-year-old, one aspect that cannot be denied is Jake Bugg’s guitar playing capabilities. On numerous occasions last night (particularly on ‘Strange Creatures’ and ‘Bitter Salt’) Bugg displayed both his fingerpicking talent and his flair for a guitar solo. The latter being an aspect of his arsenal that reveals itself far too little on record. To give him his due, the boy can sing as well. He belted out “his” numbers with a compelling force and what he lacks in visible vitriol, he more than makes up for in his ability to connect with the whole audience through his vocals.

In a set-list lasting just under ninety minutes, Bugg managed to rattle through an impressive twenty-one songs. ‘Two Fingers’, ‘Seen It All’ and ‘Messed Up Kids’ appearing to be almost effortless.

‘Love, Hope and Misery’ is an astonishing song and begs the question, ‘Could this have been a genuinely big commercial radio hit in the right hands?’ while ‘Never Wanna Dance’ could seriously have been written for Marvin Gaye to perform.

‘Trouble Town’, ‘Put Out The Fire’ and ‘Taste It’ were executed perfectly before the most tender and beautiful moment of the evening occurred during ‘Broken’. Again, one has to concede that as a singer and guitar player Jake Bugg is an extremely talented young man.

Closing with ‘Lightning Bolt’ the audience went home happy and did not seem to care whether or not the songs sung tonight were solely written by the person who performed them. The fact that it has taken Jake Bugg until his third album to manage write all of his songs himself will still leave some of us with mixed feelings about “his” music. Yes, he can sing and he can certainly play, but regarding every other aspect of him as an artist the jury is definitely still out.

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





Louder Than War: The Rolling Stones In Mono Box Set and How To Buy Their 60s Albums


The Rolling Stones In Mono Box Set and How To Buy Their 60s Albums



Buying the Rolling Stones 1960s back-catalogue can be a tricky and frustrating business. For years record buyers have been irritated by a lack of respect afforded to Stones 1960s material by both the company owning the rights to the songs (ABKCO) and the Rolling Stones themselves. Unfortunately it appears that in 2016, as the band release their ‘Rolling Stones In Mono’ box set, very little has changed.

Many Stones fans have bemoaned the fact that The Rolling Stones 1960s material has never been represented correctly. In 1986, when the Stones 60s material was released on CD for the first time, the strange decision to release the material in stereo, rather than the original mono, was made. As a result, the ‘art of weaving’ as Keith Richards has often called the Stones guitar interplay, was lost as the bands sound was spread across a stereo spectrum with very little care or attention to detail and thus omitted an intrinsic part of what made the Stones sound so unique. Thankfully the ‘Rolling Stones In Mono’ has rectified the problem by referring back to the original 1960s mixes and a generation of fans will now be able to hear the Stones 60s material as it was originally intended.

First generation fans by contrast no longer have to be puzzled as to why ‘Paint It, Black’ or ‘Get Off Of My Cloud’ do not sound quite as exhilarating as they once did.

One ghost of the 1986 CD releases still remains however. When ABKCO released the Stones back-catalogue on CD, many of the U.S. versions of the Stones albums took precedence over the UK versions and for the best part of thirty years, the US albums have appeared on the shelves of record shops (and more recently on download sites), posing as original Rolling Stones album releases. The fact is, they never were.

In the 1960s themselves, the Rolling Stones U.S. record label (ironically called ‘London’) crassly chopped up and slimmed down the Stones original UK album releases in order to squeeze every last cent out of the U.S. record buyer. Through chopping up every single Rolling Stones album recorded between 1964 and 1967, tracks that remained unreleased in America, along with stand alone singles, b-sides and EP numbers, found themselves cobbled together in order to create ‘new’ Rolling Stones albums. Releases such as ‘12×5’, ‘The Rolling Stones, Now!’, ‘Decembers Children (and Everybody’s)’ and ‘Flowers’ never appeared as UK releases and are, in truth, little more than compilation albums. Further to this, albums such as ‘Out Of Our Heads’, ‘Aftermath’ and ‘Between The Buttons’, upon their original release, were presented with different running orders in the U.S. as well as being presented with several key tracks omitted.

In 2016, as the Stones finally show the 21st century how their 60s material was meant to be heard, surely a great historian such as Keith Richards would want his own history to be represented correctly? Sadly not it would seem.

Granted, the ‘Rolling Stones In Mono’ does contain the original UK albums within but bizarrely also contains the U.S. versions in the same box. It appears that those with a disposable income will have no option but to be saddled with the U.S. versions of albums that will rarely ever reach their CD player.

It would appear that the best option for fans keen to hear the Stones as originally intended, is to hang fire and wait until the albums are released individually in 2017.

Those new to the Rolling Stones, or those wanting to simply delve further than the greatest hits compilations, may not know where to begin purchasing the Stones back catalogue but Louder Than War’s Michael Halpin is on hand to guide you, ranking the Stones UK released albums and taking us through the key tracks of each.

1) Let It Bleed – Released 5th December 1969



Not only the Stones best album from the 60s but arguably the best album the Rolling Stones have ever produced. ‘Let It Bleed’ was the first Rolling Stones album to feature Brian Jones’ replacement Mick Taylor.


‘Gimme Shelter’ – Suspected to have been written by Keith Richards when he assumed that his then girlfriend Anti Pallenberg was having an affair with Mick Jagger as they filmed their roles for the 1969 movie ‘Performance’.

Stand back and admire the pregnant session singer Merry Clayton share the majority of the lead-vocal with Mick Jagger and subsequently leave him in the shade. Pay particular attention at 3:50 when Clayton’s voice cracks wonderfully and Jagger can be heard in the background giving an approving ‘woo!’

Martin Scorsese is clearly a fan of the song using ‘Gimme Shelter’ on three separate occasions in his movies; ‘Goodfellas (1990)’, ‘Casino (1995)’ and ‘The Departed (2006)’.

‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ – Used as the b-side of ‘Honky Tonk Women’ in July 1969 before appearing on the ‘Let It Bleed’ album five months later. ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ features Northern Soul heroes Madeline Bell and Doris Troy as part of the vocal choir. Debuted live in December 1968 on ‘The Rolling Stones Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus’ the film shows the bands last live performance with an extremely fragile looking Brian Jones.

‘Midnight Rambler’ – Deemed to be written about the Boston Strangler, Albert DeSalvo.


‘Love In Vain’ – A country fuelled cover of the legendary bluesman, Robert Johnson.

‘Let It Bleed’ – Featuring Ry Cooder on slide guitar, was this a nod to the then recorded but unreleased Beatles track ‘Let It Be’?

‘Country Honk’ – A country version of ‘Honky Tonk Women’ released as a single five months previously.

‘Monkey Man’ – Used wonderfully by Martin Scorsese in ‘Goodfellas (1990)’.

2) Beggars Banquet – Released 6th December 1968


The album where the Rolling Stones ‘sound’ was born. Keith Richards discovered open-tuning and finally got chance to delve even deeper into his growing collection of blues records. With the Stones scaling back their tour commitments by 1968 (Brian Jones being too much of a liability), Keith had time to sit back and listen. It showed.


‘Sympathy For The Devil’ – Simply one of the greatest, most iconic rock songs ever written. The celebrated backing vocals and Keith’s piercing guitar solo have cemented this song into rock history. The performance during the Maysles brothers 1970 movie ‘Gimme Shelter’ is one of the darkest musical moments to ever to be captured on film.

‘Street Fighting Man’ – Inspired by both the Paris student riots of spring 1968 and an anti-Vietnam war protest march which Jagger himself attended, ‘Street Fighting Man’ was released as a U.S. only single four months prior to being included on the ‘Beggars Banquet’ album.

One of the last significant contributions Brian Jones made to a Stones track is the songs slightly off-kilter sitar drone. Charlie Watts meanwhile took the decision to play a child’s drum kit on the track.


‘No Expectations’ – Beautiful slide guitar from Brian Jones. Again, one of his final significant contributions. Once more, the footage of Jones playing the song live on ‘The Rolling Stones Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus’ is painful to watch.

‘Dear Doctor’ – A genuinely funny blues-county pastiche.

‘Stray Cat Blues’ – The riff, the vocals, the piano and Charlie’s drum fills are all astonishing. Just be wary of the lyrics

‘Salt Of The Earth’ – Lead vocals are shared by Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. Keith doing something of a passable Bob Dylan impression while the wonderful Watts Street Gospel Choir make this the seed of an idea which would later develop into ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want.’

3) The Rolling Stones – Released 16th April 1964 (UK Version)


The Rolling Stones debut album. More than any other album, ‘The Rolling Stones’ introduced both the beauty and thrill of rhythm and blues to a mass audience on both sides of the Atlantic.


‘(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66’ – Written by Bobby Troup in 1946 and originally recorded by Nat King Cole’s The King Cole Trio, the Rolling Stones picked up the song via Chuck Berry’s Rock ‘n’ Roll version in 1961. This was the beginning of the Stones and the Beatles showing white America that it already had a goldmine of popular music worth exploring.

‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’ – Written by Willie Dixon and first recorded by the Rolling Stones blues hero Muddy Waters. The Stones give it an amphetamine fuelled British R’n’B treatment and footage of the band playing the track live at the NME poll winners party in 1964 is still exhilarating 52 years later.


‘Little By Little’ – The b-side of the Stones first top ten hit, ‘Not Fade Away’.

Song writing credits go to Nanker- Phelge & Spector, Nanker-Phelge being the pseudonym used by the Stones when all five members of the band contributed to the writing of a track. Phil Spector also received a credit for simply being in the studio it seems. The interplay of guitar and harmonica solos between Mick and Keith holds a genuine raw charm.

‘Tell Me’ – One of Jagger and Richards first song writing attempts. Surprisingly Mersey beat sounding rather than rhythm and blues. The track appeared in Martin Scorsese’s ‘Mean Streets’ in 1973 – one of the first instances in which a pop song was used in the background of a scene rather than being used as a focal point.

4) Aftermath – Released 15th April 1966 (UK Version)

The Rolling Stones answer to the Beatles ‘Rubber Soul’ and the first Stones album to consist entirely of Jagger & Richards material.


‘Mothers Little Helper’ – Reflecting the darker side of the swinging sixties, ‘Mothers Little Helper’ laments the increased use of valium as a prescription drug in the UK. The sitar-sounding intro is actually Keith Richards playing slide on a 12-string guitar.

‘Under My Thumb’ – Influenced by the Four Tops ‘It’s The Same Old Song’, ‘Under My Thumb’ features both an intriguing fuzz-bass from Bill Wyman and an exotic sounding marimba from Brian Jones.

One of the Stones most popular songs from the period, classic footage of the Stones performing the song on the ‘Rolling Stones Special’ for the highly influential ‘Ready, Steady, Go!’ from 1966 is available to be viewed on www.youtube.com

The Who recorded and rush-released both ‘Under My Thumb’ and ‘The Last Time’ as a good-will gesture when Mick Jagger and Keith Richards appeared to be facing prison sentences for drug possession. Pete Townshend stated that the gesture was as a way of keeping the Rolling Stones material in the public eye.


‘Lady Jane’ – Written by Mick Jagger after reading the then controversial ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’, the intrinsically English-sounding composition features a beautifully played dulcimer courtesy of Brian Jones who, although losing his grip as the bands leader (it was Jones who formed the band in 1962) took on the mantle of the bands multi-instrumentalist, finding unusual instrumentation and musical textures designed to develop the Stones sound.

‘Out Of Time’ – British R’n’B singer Chris Farlowe’s cover of ‘Out Of Time’ was number 1 in the UK charts during the week in which England won the World Cup in 1966.

Like the majority of the material on ‘Aftermath’, ‘Out Of Time’ benefits from the unusual instrumentation afforded to it by Brian Jones. In this particular case, Jones adding a marimba to the recording.

Stinker: Stupid Girl

5) Out Of Our Heads – Released 24th September 1965 (UK Version)


Although not filled with classic Stones material, The Stones third album interestingly see’s the band moving away from blues covers and over to more soul based material. If anything, the album almost presents itself as ‘The Rolling Stones Sing Soul’.

This was the last Rolling Stones album to be predominantly cover version based.


‘I’m Free’ – Best known as the original version of the Soup Dragons 1990 top 5 hit, the track is worth the time of day for that alone.

‘Good Times’ – A faithful cover of the Sam Cooke classic, again, at the time the Rolling Stones were managing to turn young people onto both rhythm and blues and soul on both sides of the Atlantic.

‘Hitch Hike’ – A cover of Marvin Gaye’s 1962 hit, the Stones version was cited by Lou Reed as the inspiration for the Velvet Underground’s ‘There She Goes Again’.

‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’ – A tender cover of the O.V. Wright classic. The Stones version leans more towards the Otis Redding rendition and again classic footage is available of the Stones performing the number on ‘Ready, Steady, Go!’ in 1965.

‘Heart of Stone’ – An early Jagger & Richards composition. Mick and Keith appear to be finding their feet in writing songs in the style of their rhythm and blues heroes.

6) Their Satanic Majesties Request…The Rolling Stones – Released 8th December 1967


The Stones infamously go psychedelic. Not as bad an album as its reputation in rock history suggests.

The album suffered from being recorded during Mick Jagger and Keith Richards high profile ‘Redlands’ court case and you can almost hear the fact that their minds are on other things.


‘She’s A Rainbow’ – The playful, almost childlike ‘She’s A Rainbow’ is arguably the most beautiful song the Rolling Stones have ever recorded and session musician Nicky Hopkins contributes a mesmeric piano line which gives ‘She’s A Rainbow’ its main area of intrigue. Future Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, a seasoned session musician at the time, composed the string arrangement for the track while Brian Jones’s mellotron adds further psychedelic weight.

‘2000 Light Years From Home’ – Legend has it that Mick Jagger wrote the lyrics for ‘2000 Light Years From Home’ whilst in Brixton Prison following his conviction for drug possession in June 1967.

A wonderful version of the Stones performing the track “live” can be viewed on Tony Palmer’s excellent pop music documentary, ‘All My Loving’ from 1968.


‘Citadel’ – The most typically Stones-like song on ‘Their Satanic Majesties…’ the songs chorus refers to Candy Darling, the transgender muse of both the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol who met the Rolling Stones in a New York City hotel during the months leading up to the recording of ‘Their Satanic Majesties…’

‘In Another Land’ – The Bill Wyman penned number is worth a listen for the simple fact that it features the Small Faces Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane on backing vocals, with Steve Marriott effortlessly out-singing Mick Jagger on the chorus.

Stinkers: ‘Sing This All Together (See What Happens)’ and ‘Gomper’

7) Between The Buttons – Released 20th January 1967 (UK version)


Like ‘Out Of Our Heads’, ‘Between The Buttons’ is not an album filled with Rolling Stones classics and much of the best material recorded during the album sessions did not make it onto the UK release. Songs like ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’, ‘Ruby Tuesday’ and ‘Have You Seen Your Mother Baby, Standing In The Shadow?’ were all released as stand-alone singles when in truth, ‘Between The Buttons’ could and would have benefitted from the addition of these tracks.


‘Yesterday’s Papers’ – The first song Mick Jagger wrote completely on his own. It has been suggested that the song was directed at Jagger’s ex-girlfriend Chrissy Shrimpton (sister of iconic 60s model Jean Shrimpton).

‘Back Street Girl’ – Revisiting the English-folk theme of ‘Lady Jane’, Brian Jones plays an enchanting vibraphone while Phil Spector collaborator, Jack Nitzsche, contributes a wonderful harpsichord.

‘All Sold Out’ – The rockiest song on the album, a wonderful fuzz-bass from Bill Wyman and some equally wonderful distorted guitar from Keith reflects, as well as anything else of the era, the point where pop music was just about to become psychedelic rock.

Stinker – ‘Something Happened To Me Yesterday’

8) Rolling Stones No. 2 – Released 15th January 1965


Like their debut from the year previous, ‘Rolling Stones No.2’ is, aside from three Jagger and Richards originals, an album filled with blues covers. The return is slightly diminished however in comparison to their 1964 debut release.


‘Time Is On My Side’ – A cover of the beloved rhythm and blues favourite by Irma Thomas.


‘I Can’t Be Satisfied’ – A faithful version of the Muddy Waters hit, sixteen years after the release of the original.

All words Michael Halpin. More writing by Michael on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive.