Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Bluetones

The Bluetones

The 1990s as a decade produced some of the greatest rock music of the 20th century, and while there have been great bands in all decades from the 1950s through 2000, only the 1990s can rival the 1960s in terms of the scope, breadth, and sheer number of seminal bands which emerged on both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, the fertile and competitive scene of the 1990s is eclipsed only by the 1960s in both quality and impact, and as of 2014 it remains the last truly important scene in rock music.  In both America and the UK, there were bands emerging that reacted against the slick, AOR dominance of hair metal and synth-pop.  In the USA, it spawned grunge and alternative rock, while the UK gave rise to baggy, shoegaze, and ultimately indie rock. Both alternative and indie, which became the dominant genres of the decade, spawned some of the greatest bands and albums since the 1960s' golden age: in America, you had Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Pavement, the Smashing Pumpkins, the Pixies, and more, while in the UK you had Blur, Suede, Oasis, Pulp, The Stone Roses, Elastica, Mansun, Radiohead, and the Bluetones, amongst others.



The subject of this latest band profile are, as you've gathered from the title, the Bluetones. They were a band from Hounslow, London, England and had a career that spanned the years 1994 until 2011. In that time, they released six albums (three of them Top 10 albums in the UK), countless singles and B-sides, and carved out a career as one of the greatest and most overlooked indie bands of the decade. They were, in the photo above; top row L-R: Eds Chesters (drums), Scott Morriss (bass guitar, backing vocals), bottom row L-R: Adam Devlin (guitars), Mark Morriss (lead vocals).  The band were initially called the Bottlegarden before changing their name to the Bluetones, and they developed a rabidly loyal fanbase called "the Blue Army" that remained loyal to them until the end of the band.









Combining the sound of 1960s jangly psychedelia and 1990s Britpop, upon the success of their single "Slight Return" hitting #2 in the UK singles chart and their debut album Expecting to Fly hitting #1 in the UK album charts (both in 1996), they were lumped in with the rest of the Britpop movement that was then at the peak of its popularity in Great Britain. However, while they remained successful throughout their career, they never again equalled this initial surge of success, partly due to being labeled as "Britpop."  Indeed, when their career is looked at in its entirety, they were more a traditional indie rock band.  In this way, they suffered a similar fate to another great UK band of outsiders, Mansun, who were the antithesis of Britpop yet continued to be saddled with the label by the media and public perception.  The 'Tones' debut album is a perfect blend of heavy psychedelic rock, as in the epic opening track "Talking to Clarry" and the caustic "Carn't Be Trusted," switchy then to the folksy "Vampire," the quietly intense "The Fountainhead" which explodes into a majestic finale, the sludgy rock of "Cut Some Rug," and the jangle-pop of "Slight Return" and "Bluetonic."  Their second album, 1998's Return to the Last Chance Saloon, was a much heavier and darker affair, with an overall sound that echoed the sense of desperation and gloom that was shown in the old American west/southwest-themed album art.  While Expecting to Fly showed the band to be fantastic musicians, their instrumental chops really came to the fore on the second album, with the guitars lines even more sinewy and complicated, the bass lines more melodic and rumbling, and the drumming more thunderous, dexterous, and driving.  It's my favorite album of theirs, from the joyous "If..." to the dark humor of "Solomon Bites the Worm," the harrowing despair of "4-Day Weekend," "Ames," and "The Jub-Jub Bird," and the epically sweeping finale of "Broken Starr."   2000's follow-up album, Science and Nature, was a quieter but no less interesting affair, with a more acoustic based sound similar to how Led Zeppelin III sounded after Led Zeppelin II's bombast. Still, the unmistakably lush and beautiful songs and arrangements that were always a hallmark of the Bluetones were there: cheeky opening track "Zorrro" gives way to the intense beauty of "Tiger Lily" and "The Last of the Great Navigators." There were still some harrowing cuts, notably "The Basement Song" and "Keep the Home Fires Burning," culminating with the wistful "Slack Jaw" (about a love that got away) and the something-is-not-quite-right eeriness of "Emily's Pine." 






From here until the end, it was a strange ride for the band, who continued to release excellent albums and play gigs for their loyal fanbase while their chart and sales numbers declined. In a way, these years are a textbook example of the "critically acclaimed/commercially failed" trap too many talented musicians fall into. 2003's Luxembourg was a stripped down, back-to-basics affair, from the stark cream-colored album art to the songs that were a bit more jagged and angular, slashing guitars and thumping drums augmented by driving bass guitar and harsh (in a good sense) synthesizer punctuations. In a way, it is their new-wave/80s pop album, and standout cuts include "Fast Boy," "Never Going Nowhere," "Liquid Lips," and "Here it Comes Again." 2005's self-titled album was a true return-to-ground-zero album and their best performing album since the debut. It was the perfect update of their trademark lush, jangly 90s sound with a more contemporary 2000s sound, and the range of styles on the album were impressive.  The pure power pop of "My Neighbour's House," "Baby, Back Up," and "Head On a Spike" sat alongside the lilting "Surrendered," beautiful ballads like "The Last Song But One" and "Fade In/Fade Out," and sly humor like "Wasn't I Right About You?"  Their final album, 2010's A New Athens, showed the band as strong as ever, with the absolutely gorgeous "Firefly" sharing space on the record with standout tracks like "Half the Size of Nothing," "Haunted By You," "Pranchestonelle," and darker tunes like "The Notes Between the Notes Between the Notes" and "Into the Red."  However, despite strong critical reviews, the album failed to chart and rather than risk becoming a nostalgia act, the band decided to bow out gracefully with a farewell tour in 2011 that saw them playing in front of their devoted fans, who continue to lament the demise of the Bluetones to the present. Since the band split, Mark Morriss has embarked upon a successful solo career, Adam Devlin (I believe) continues to work as a musician, Scott Morriss is an illustrator and graphic designer, and Eds Chesters works as an osteopath.







In addition to their albums, the Bluetones were another in a tradition of 1990s British indie rock bands who had excellent singles, many of them standalone (ie non-album tracks) and with some great B-sides. Apart from those stemming from their final two albums, these are all collected on the triple-CD compilation A Rough Outline. An excellent standalone EP, the Serenity Now EP, was also released in 2005, as was a great live album Once Upon a Time in West Twelve (recorded in 2005), and a BBC Sessions compilation (both released in 2007).  Overall, the band left a body of work of excellent quality that still sounds fresh and vital after their split.  As for how and why I became such a huge fan of this band, who are virtually unknown in America (and as far as I know, only ever played one small tour here in their entire career), I first heard the Bluetones around 2000. I had signed up for one of the first online streaming radio services, the now-defunct LaunchCast by Yahoo, where bands and songs could be rated so that the service would recommend you new music based on your preference.  Songs by the Bluetones (as well as Mansun...this is also how I fully discovered them) kept playing and the more I heard, the more I liked. This led me to explore their albums and the rest, as they say, is history.






There are several reasons why the band has resonated so deeply with me. First and foremost is that, simply put, the music is great. It's well written, catchy, interesting, melodically and harmonically lush, and encompasses the best of what I love of British rock music, which is the amalgamation of numerous influences and styles into a wholly unique sound.  In addition, they are excellent musicians. Adam Devlin is, in my opinion, one of the finest British guitarists of his generation, on the same level of other titans such as Graham Coxon, Bernard Butler, Dominic Chad, Steve Craddock, John Squire, and Johnny Marr. Scott Morriss plays melodically inventive counterpoint melodies on bass in the vein of other excellent bass guitarists of his era such as Alex James, while Eds Chesters is a rock solid and powerful drummer who always plays for the song but has the chops to stretch out when it's necessary. Mark Morriss has a very melodic and pleasant voice with a tenor range, and the contrast of the musical backdrop, whether it's a pretty ballad or a bombastic harder rock song, and his vocals is one of the unique and wonderful things about the Bluetones' sound.  For me, they hearken back to the jangly 1960s psychedelia of the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield and meld it with the best of 1960s British rock into something akin to what the Smiths started in the 1980s, fitting right in with their contemporaries in the 1990s Britpop scene. However, they rejected the Britpop label and I do, too...Britpop came to mean something derivative and commercial as pertaining to that specific scene, whereas the best bands of that era, of which the Bluetones were one, transcended that stifling label in order to survive and thrive beyond it. They may not have been the most commercially successful or critically acclaimed band of their era but they were certainly one of the best, and in the end it's the quality of the music and its impact on the listener that is most important.  A back and forth on Twitter with a follower of mine resulted in the discussion that if Blur were the Beatles of the 1990s, Oasis were the Rolling Stones, and Supergrass were the Who, then the Bluetones were the Kinks...that is to say, the band that was quirky, popular (but not as much as the others) yet equally as valuable for their contribution to the music, and a band that was and still is held near to the hearts of their ever-loyal and passionate fanbase.  I can certainly think of worse comparisons to be made, and in this case I think this one is completely accurate.




17 comments:

  1. Thank-you, i'm very interested in this kind of music. I'm quite old, but only in the last 2/3 years I'm really becoming very passionate about music and I'm still discovering what it's more appealing to me.
    I'm in mad love particulary with Blur music, but I like in general indie music, mostly british and I like very much your blog, full of new inputs for me.
    Thank you
    Nadia

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nadia, thanks for the kind words and for commenting! Glad to hear you live Blur and British indie rock, I'm the same way, along with classic rock it makes up the bulk of my listening taste. Did you listen to some of the Bluetones songs in this post? What did you think of them?

      Delete
    2. Yes, I listend to these songs. I found them agreeable, but not so catchy for me, like instead, for example, Mansun, that you suggested some times ago.
      A very nice discovery for me.
      But maybe I have to give them sore more listening and they can grow on me, sometimes it works like this (for example, I couldn't stand Albarn's Everyday Robots at start, now I like it, even if not like any Blur album).
      Thank-you and have a good day
      Nadia
      ps. sorry for my english, i'm italian :-)

      Delete
    3. No worries, your English is fine!

      I was the same way with Everyday Robots, it wasn't until I saw him do the songs live in concert that the album finally clicked with me, now I think it's great! Maybe repeat listens will make the Bluetones grow on you, maybe not...it's all good! Sounds like you did enjoy Mansun, though, yes?

      Delete
    4. Yes,I enjoyed them very much.
      Me too, saw Albarn live in Italy this July, at the Vittoriale and it was amazing. We were a little crowd and since he asked the people to stand up from the seats, we rushed towards the stage and I saw the show form the front row, it was wonderful.
      Unluckily I've never managed to see Blur live, I hope in the future there will be an opportunity.

      Delete
    5. Sounds like your Damon show was good! Mine was the same way, in a mid-sized club, but my friends and I were right up front and it was a great show. I only saw Blur live once, in 2003, but it was an incredible show. I had had a chance to see them twice in 1999 but passed on both opportunities, which I deeply regret now!

      Sadly, Mansun and the Bluetones each only played one tour of gigs here in the USA, both in the late 1990s, so I never got to see either band, although I did get to ask Mark Morriss a question on a UK radio show once, and I communicate with Paul Draper online since he's helping me with info for my upcoming Mansun book, so I can't complain too much!

      Delete
    6. And I meant to ask, which Mansun songs/albums were your favorite?

      Delete
    7. Yes, it was a very good show, lot of excitement from Damon and from the crowd. He was very friendly and I also managed to grasp his hand :-))
      A very nice selection of songs from every project. Regarding the Blur material, he sang End of a Century, Out of time and All your life.

      Speaking of Mansum, I'm listening random things, but at the moment my favourite song is Wide Open Space (a common place, I know).


      Delete
    8. Cool! I'm curious which Bluetones songs you listened to that you weren't crazy about? Maybe I could point you in a different direction to see if you might like some of their stuff? If not, no worries, it's all personal preference anyway!

      Delete
    9. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
    10. I listened to the ones you linked in your post. But it isn't like I dislike them. Only...it seems they don't catch me very hardly, I don't feel the need to listen over and over again...like it happens with some other artists.
      These days for example I'm in love with PJ Harvey's "Let England Shake" and the ALT-J album, "An awesome wave".
      Different things, but I love both of them.
      Just read your last post: good luck for your new work and all the busy days coming. Hoping to hear from you and your blog soon!!

      Delete
    11. Fair enough! I'm glad you at least have them a try, rusts more than a lot of people would do!

      Thanks for the well wishes, it's been hectic and it's not going to slow down any time soon but hopefully in a week or two things should be close to normal again.

      Delete
  2. With a name like the Bluetones, I was expecting more of a blues sound, however, they sounded more pop to my ears, and that's fine. I enjoy pop ever so often. I think the last band like that I followed was Crowded House. Guess you can't judge a band by their name.

    Hard to say where my taste lies these days. I don't actively seek out bands the way I used to when I was younger for a couple of reasons. One, I feel like I have enough music unless something really engages me, and two, I enjoy other musical categories too like classical, which I listen to mostly in the mornings. I started listening to classical sometime in the 90's, and somewhere along the way it stuck. I started buying some of it too, but would also try and find the NPR radio show Performance Today, and it filled that itch.

    Where my taste in rock/pop/popular music is at today would be hard to describe. I look for something that sounds fresh (at least to me) with a bit of complexity. I like Spock's Beard a lot, The Flower Kings, Radiohead, Sonic Youth, Deerhoof, Ozric Tentacles, Van Der Graaf Generator, Steve Wilson's The Raven That Refused to Sing was pretty great. Plus I still pick up some older things that I may have passed by in earlier times like Caravan, Nektar, or Hatfield and the North or in a different category like jazz, folk, or some other type music.

    I think each decade have had their share of hits and misses, and if you're a music fan there's always something of interest. The 70's was still hanging somewhat onto the 60's, but also had some good bands like the Eagles, the Police, Jackson Browne, Allman Brothers, Little Feat, etc., while older acts were still cranking out good music, like the Stones, Pink Floyd, etc. But also they had disco. The late 70's/80's had some of the punk stuff as well as mainstream acts: the Minutemen, Tom Petty, Elvis Costello, and among many others. I guess if you like music you'll find something to enjoy, no matter the decade.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I didn't mean to imply the 70s and 80s were lousy...there are tons of bands I like from those years. Although, as you rightly point out, much of that was carryover from the previous decades, and I do think there was a definite trough in the 1980s until the end of the decade. There were exceptions, of course! I'm glad you enjoyed the Bluetones...good stuff, isn't it? Very throwback to the 1965-68 period but not sounding derivative and also sounding very 90s British.

      I was happy to see you're also a fan of Spock's Beard (as well as Radiohead and Flower Kings, both of who I dig a lot, too). I don't come across too many fellow SB fans!

      BTW, I tried to follow your blog but there's no button on your site to do so? Or am I missing it?

      Delete
  3. No, Drew, I don't have a button or whatever set up. I get frustrated pretty easily trying to figure out computer stuff, and would rather just belt it out and post something. I wish I knew more about such things, but it's mostly for fun for me anyway.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You use Blogger like I do, if you go to the "Layout" tab in your Dashboard, you can add it as a gadget, pretty simple :).

      Delete