James Garner on what The Horrors’ implausible comeback tells us
It is almost aphoristic that the only thing more irritating than not knowing the secret to a magic trick is to know the secret to a magic trick. It is learning the secret that reduces the grand illusion to the fake wall, the false bottom, the flipped mirror. But there can always be exceptions.
The American duo Penn and Teller perform one of the oldest tricks with the mechanisms exposed, yet keep the magic intact. It’s a simple set-up: a table, three cups, three balls. The balls vanish, reappear and transmogrify. While most tricks prove dishearteningly banal, this trick, when performed with transparent cups, is revealed to be pure artistry – a triumph of dexterity which the eye cannot match. And yet there is little more damaging in the arts than for the tricks of artifice to be seen; disbelief descends with the cameraman’s reflection, the puppet strings or the loop of the laughter track. This was the fate that befell The Horrors, the five-piece Southend freakbeat group who, in 2006, went from nought to the cover of NME in less than year.
Most people haven’t heard of them. Such accelerated success raises the eyebrows and the poison pens. The band couldn’t be allowed to make it look so easy. Their vision of coiffured anorexics flailing at effects pedals, organs and the psych-garage canon, their pop alchemy, had to be brought tumbling down as swiftly as it had emerged. Too much, too soon. The group felt the effects of whiplash before the release of their second single.
Few bands survive the media backlash; most at least enjoy a honeymoon period until they’ve released an LP or two, they’re afforded the chance to establish themselves and thus have some chance to weather the storm. But the script for The Horrors had been written and it was a one-act play. The curtain call was to be them taking their bow as a sniggering footnote, alongside stillborns – Menswe@r, Gay Dad, The Horrors. And then this March, after two years in the wilderness, came Sea Within a Sea, an eight minute contender for single of the decade.
The LP that followed, Primary Colours is the rarest of things, a second album that changes direction remains innovative and eclipses its predecessor. Today, in spite of a lingering mistrust and disbelief, The Horrors are becoming acknowledged as the most exciting group in Britain. From their brief history we can learn everything about our pop decade, a decade that seems destined to add only one name, The Libertines, to the honours board of great British bands.
When The Horrors were first splashed on the NME cover, editor Conor McNicholas explained, “We found 800 kids in Middlesbrough diving on to the dance floor for Sheena is a Parasite. We knew then that this was a real movement by kids looking for something new.” McNicholas was clearly lying but more important was the bizarre notion that kids in Middlesbrough going crazy for a single limited to 500 pressings was a good thing, for the band in question, for music. Any fashionista knows that once anything reaches the Sunday supplements – it’s over. And by the time it reaches Middlesbrough?
The very idea that kids in Middlesbrough might have their fingers on the pulse could only exist in a brave new world where communication is universal, continuous, instant. And the churn rate is maddening. While we always knew that pop would eat itself, nobody predicted it could self-cannibalise this quickly. If you doubt the change, remember the last great British band to save their careers with an unexpected peach of a second album. In 1992, one album down, Blur released Popscene, still arguably their best song, to a media onslaught. A typical review concluded, “Blur – you are the Soup Dragons. Now fuck off.”
Blur clung to life by their fingertips with Modern Life is Rubbish, their true self-actualisation, and an album so good that they made it again, and again. The consequence, amidst stoked up Britpop hysteria, was Parklife and The Great Escape, two LPs that topped the charts. What Blur enjoyed was a slower process, a little time. The Horrors suffered the backlash after their first single, hurtling so much faster on the rollercoaster of opinion. What matters here is the way the odds were stacked against their comeback, far more so than Blur.
While Leisure was a Top Ten hit; The Horrors’ debut Strange House peaked at #37 and they were dropped by Universal. Exiled to Germany the group purportedly pulled four-day recording sessions in windowless studios. Only an insane determination and the patronage of producer and true believer Geoff Barrow (Portishead) sustained them. One can only wonder how few bands could persist having been chewed up and spat out before they’d even mastered their instruments. And that is to ignore another key difference between Blur and The Horrors. Dorian Lynskey wrote in The Guardian of The Horrors comeback record, “Who could have guessed they would metabolise their influences with such bold panache?” The answer is, well, anyone who actually listened to their debut. Strange House was a singular achievement which combined wild hundred-second singles, intelligent pop and, (if you got to the end) instrumentals which predicted their second record with woozy soundscapes that dip, dart, then dally a while. But everybody had written them off already.
Blur’s Leisure was cynically derivative, jumping on the bandwagon of the Madchester sound and the shoe-gaze style. Breakthrough single There’s No Other Way was a none too subtle encapsulation of the constraints the band felt in their pursuit of success. Damon Albarn has himself dismissed Leisure as “awful” and at least some of the vitriol that came Blur’s way was warranted.
The Horrors’ only crime was their impossibly strong sense of aesthetics which propelled them so quickly into the music pages. As NME notes today, they were dismissed as “haircuts, scenesters, talentless art-school chancers.” (Of course they weren’t dismissed by NME. It couldn’t possibly have been the only remaining music weekly that had set the agenda.) The dominant fallacy was that style and substance are mutually exclusive, pace Rolling Stone: “What they don’t have is…true conviction.” Somehow everyone forgot that pop music is all about choosing style over substance, believing style is substance.
The grand high wizards of substance, Pitchfork, were utterly bemused by The Horrors’ revival, having recoiled from a “band that spends more money on wardrobe than recording budgets.” Now they say, “it turns out the freakiest thing about the Horrors is that they’re for real.” This marks a rare emergence from their safe haven, a critical retreat that protects the wilfully drab, mediocre and bearded. Wolf Parade. Black Mountain. Fuck Buttons. And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. Bon Iver. Holy Fuck. Fleet Foxes. Silver Jews. Taking the Piss. No, that isn’t one.
Even now nobody has realised that to dismiss The Horrors as five haircuts in search of a sound was to miss the point. What fantastic haircuts! And now they’ve returned with the difficult second haircut and they’ve only got better.
Perceptions of bands rest on much more than mere music. Plenty of great bands (The Velvet Underground, The Clash) have prospered without musical virtuosity but a strong aesthetic is absolutely essential. Pete Doherty’s recent album Grace/Wastelands was the most technically accomplished work he’s done but it was released to general indifference as opposed the rapture that engulfed The Libertines. People wanted to bask in the emaciated glow of a young junkie but there is little appeal now in leering at the bloated mess of an on-off thirty-something addict.
Another charge long levelled at The Horrors (and seemingly every new band) is that they lack originality. Certainly they wear their influences on their record sleeves. Strange House showed them in a gothic setting, brooding in monochrome, echoing The Cramps. That frenzied work exploded with youthful energy and assurance, a first stab in the dark. Primary Colours is premeditated murder. Their shaken shapes recollect My Bloody Valentine, and so does the record. Any rock and roll outfit since, oh, 1951 is derivative. But today such accusations are taken so much more seriously. Once it would never go beyond a few snide remarks in the letters page of Melody Maker. Now anyone can fire up YouTube and hear the case for the prosecution. And yes, The Horrors are guilty. Their song Count in Fives does rip off We the People’s 1966 track, My Brother the Man, a local hit in Florida.
And that’s supposed to matter?
By the prevailing logic every great band would have been written off. The Jesus and Mary Chain? The Shangri-Las asleep on a bed of distortion pedals. The Smiths? The Byrds on Prozac. The Stone Roses? The Byrds on ecstasy. It’s a game we can play until the cows have thrown themselves off a cliff.
Perversely as popular music has become cultural history (and vice versa) the groups who have secured their place in history are spared all these barbs. The quickening pace of modern music leaves a fear of embracing the zeitgeist, the temporal or, in other words, your own judgment.
You can’t go wrong with the established classics. Happiness is a warm canon. Out with the new and in with inertia. This manifests itself in the mystifying collective decision to descend on the nation’s indoor arenas and pretend it’s 1965. You hope that you might be sat far enough away from the stage to obscure reality, to obscure that the main attraction is a geriatric man clearing his throat for two hours. If the answer is Bob Dylan then you’re asking the wrong question.
In a climate sceptical of image, emphasising what’s borrowed not what’s new and affording ever less time it is hardly surprising that no band has been able to attain greatness in this half of this decade. It just isn’t allowed. The Horrors, not even reacting against this, merely being, show where it all went wrong. They make no effort to hide their influences, their style, or that they’re enjoying themselves.
It’s a simple set-up: five guys, four instruments and glamour. We all know how it’s done, and yet, when The Horrors perform rock and roll there’s that old magic again.