The natural reaction of most when confronted with the news that The Bluetones‘ debut album has been remastered and given a second CD of radio sessions, is surely to wonder whether this is all leading to a Shed Seven rarities box set or Thurman being inducted into the Rock’n'Roll Hall Of Fame. The Hounslow outfit – it was de rigeur for some reason to mention they were from Hounslow – are in the collective memory as having been in the right place at the right time. Distinctly unglamorous, Phoenix Festival slots, Shine compilation appearances… they’re forever to be associated with that dreaded word Britpop. Armando Iannucci gave them a place in his list of things that nobody actually needs, alongside badminton, Wilbur Smith novels, cummerbunds and the countries Chad, Paraguay and Laos.
But wait up, because there’s far more to them than that. Expecting To Fly went platinum and the band, openly unwilling participants in the Britpop charabanc at the time, never split up and kept plugging away trying to better themselves even if the sales fell away. There’s a sense of community behind their standing in the self-styled Blue Army, a set of fans still capable of filling Shepherd’s Bush Empire and getting behind a band who seem to do endless laps of the whole UK. Based on solidly melodic, classically English guitar alt-pop, they were, awkward as it sounds now, often referred to during their development as “the new Stone Roses”.
What, thirteen years on, has the ravages of time done to that debut, then? Actually, it’s been a lot kinder than to most of their contemporaries. That Stone Roses comparison seems more pronounced now in the waves of guitars, particularly on nearly seven minute opener ‘Talking To Clarry’, the stratospheric heroic quasi-solos seemingly channelling most of The Second Coming at once. But while the Bluetones didn’t have a baggy lope or real Led Zep ambitions, they weren’t as meat and potatoes lad-rock as some, especially by landfill indie’s repositioning of the standards. All the choruses are too wordy for drunken arena singalongs, the lyrics deal with emotions that actually affect things (‘Carn’t Be Trusted’, which makes up in critical doubt what it lacks with its generic sound) rather than sketchy ideas and the band’s interplay is too tricksy. Too tricksy when the band go off on an elongated jam at the end of some songs.
Of the album’s three singles two come off less well – ‘Bluetonic”s choppy chords and dated jangle (and lyrical steal from poet Adrian Mitchell) and ‘Cut Some Rug’ never really going anywhere – but the number two hit and calling card ‘Slight Return’ is little diminished. Its strident tones and possibly sentimentally hopeful lyric only partly masking a gloriously melodic twist. Also shining from the pack comes ‘The Fountainhead’, a folksy, airily melancholic skip in which Mark Morriss puts himself through the emotional wringer that’s all the better for its conciseness. ‘A Parting Gesture”s countrified lilt, complete with harmonica, has greater depth than anything Paul Weller was doing at the same time. ‘Putting Out Fires’ never gets over the couplet “when you’re near my heart beats quicker faster/It’s your skin as pale as alabaster” and in retrospect a couple of tracks in the second half sound like mere warmups for second album Return To The Last Chance Saloon‘s standouts and singles ‘If…’ and ‘Four Day Weekend’, but overall what ‘Bluetonic’ nails as “a little charm and a lot of style” rings true.
The second disc features live session tracks recorded for John Peel, Mark Radcliffe and the Evening Session plus part of a set for Radio 1′s Sound City. For once it’s not completely ignorable, largely due to the rawer Peel tracks, including a much looser ‘Cut Some Rug’ featuring some tremendous drumming from the overly plurally named Eds Chesters. There’s also two versions of the appealingly jangly early single ‘Are You Blue Or Are You Blind?’, although on the Radcliffe version you’ll have to make allowances for just how off-key Morriss goes at points. None of this package will give the Bluetones more of a profile in rock history’s great tapestry then, but at least it proves they weren’t as bad as some would have you believe.
Although I would like it placed on record here and now that there’s no way I’m covering any Cast reissues.