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."
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.