Monday, June 07, 2021

The artists that time forgot: Badly Drawn Boy

Breaking through to the musical mainstream has never been easy. And even for the fortunate few who make it, there’s still no guarantee of a lasting legacy. In this series, we look at some of the acts who once made a big splash in the music scene, but ended up as a minor footnote in pop history.

In mid-December 2010, on the closing night of his North American tour, Damon Gough – aka Badly Drawn Boy – secured global recognition for all the wrong reasons.

 

His show at LA’s Troubadour Club was largely spent insulting supportive fans and repeatedly ranting about the sound quality. Upon returning after an impromptu mid-set break, he admitted to the few audience members left in the room, “This is a f***ing disaster… I just want the world to swallow me up ... Why tour America when nobody’s buying the record?”

 

The record in question was, It’s What I’m Thinking Pt.1: Photographing Snowflakes. And it’s true – nobody bought it.

 

Yet just ten years earlier, Badly Drawn Boy had been the air to the British songwriting throne, riding on a wave of adulation as his album, The Hour of the Bewilderbeast, scored relentless Album of the Year placings on both sides of the Atlantic.

 

So how did Damon Gough go from laudation as both the new Nick Drake and the new Elliott Smith, to washing up as a ranty and abusive club-circuit singer hell-bent on self-destruction?


 

Cometh the hour…

 

With his woolly hat and dishevelled demeanour, Damon Gough looked kind of like a badly drawn pop star. He cut an instantly recognisable figure although not necessarily one well-suited to the musical mainstream, which is where he quickly found himself following his breakthrough debut album, The Hour of the Bewilderbeast.

 

His first vinyl EP, the appropriately named EP1, gained the attention of the alternative music press for its offbeat and slightly ramshackle pop sensibilities. Like the musical equivalent of a Wes Anderson movie, Gough quickly inhabited his own unique space within the alternative landscape. Following several similarly acclaimed EPs, his first full-length recording was eagerly awaited amongst those in the know. However, what would transpire was a surge in critical popularity that set Gough on the fast-track to mass recognition and created a weight of expectation that crippled his creative sensibilities and redirected him towards an ultimately fruitless pursuit of grand slam musical success. 

 

A considerable amount has been written about 2000’s The Hour of the Bewilderbeast already, not least the fact that it has been used as a stick with which to beat Gough in practically every subsequent Badly Drawn Boy review. The quintessential ‘hard act to follow’, he recently explained that, “I do get frustrated with people always banging on about Bewilderbeast, but I understand it too. For most artists their debut is important, and with me that was magnified because it did so well out of nowhere.”

 

For now, we’ll forgo the critical appraisal of the record and consider its immediate impact on Gough’s career instead. The Times named Bewilderbeast the Best Album of the Year, as did many other outlets. Today it is listed in the popular coffee table book, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, while The Guardian has named album opener ‘The Shining’ as one of 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear.

 

Within weeks of its release, The Hour of the Bewilderbeast was hotly tipped to win the 2000 Mercury Music Prize, and indeed it did win, solidifying Gough’s reputation as the hottest singer-songwriter to emerge from the musical jumble of the post-Britpop era. While Bewilderbeast never made it any higher than number 13 in the UK album charts, the Mercury success ensured that it would eventually go platinum (300,000+ sales) and laid the groundwork for the most auspicious period of Gough’s career.

 


Something to talk about

 

By the turn of the century, British author Nick Hornby was one of the nation’s leading literary exports, particularly since his classic muso novel High Fidelity had been adapted into a transatlantic movie hit starring John Cusack.

 

As Gough rose to recognition, Hornby was busily working with established US filmmakers Paul and Chris Weitz to adapt his most recent novel, About A Boy, into a romantic comedy featuring British heartthrob and occasional bad boy Hugh Grant. Buoyed by their love of Bewilderbeast, all three agreed that Gough would be the perfect artist to soundtrack the film.

 

Despite a few reservations, Gough agreed to the project, postponing plans for his next full-length release and diverting his attention to writing and recording 16 new works, predominantly instrumentals with a few new songs thrown in for good measure. 

 

Upon release in 2002, About A Boy was lauded even more highly than Bewilderbeast. While time has rightly forced a reappraisal of this position, it remains a charming record that – like most great soundtracks – is enhanced considerably when experienced within its cinematic context.

 

Not only that, but the film was a massive success, taking more than $130m worldwide and presenting Badly Drawn Boy’s work to a global audience. About A Boy gave Gough his first top 10 album in the UK as well as his first top 20 single, courtesy of album highlight ‘Silent Sigh’.

 


Fish food

 

Gough had put his second album on hold for About A Boy, but the commercial success achieved in the interim provided a major confidence boost evident at the start of Have You Fed The Fish? released just six months after his Grant/Hornby accompaniment.

 

Picture those rough and ready Matt Groening Simpsons drawings from The Tracey Ullman show transformed into the glossy technicolour cartoon that shook the world, and you get a sense of the musical transformation from the early Badly Drawn Boy EPs to the album opener ‘Coming Into Land’. And the transformation doesn’t stop there. On the title track, Gough is not content with technicolour either and opts to go one step further into all-out Wings mode (and it’s a pretty good Wings impression too).

 

These are bold moves drawn from a broad palette. Unfortunately, the obvious ambition of Have You Fed The Fish? is somewhat undermined by the shortcomings of the songwriting. ‘Born Again’ is a surround-sound version of Bewilderbeast-style material, but less effective for it. ‘How?’ starts brilliantly but stutters to a standstill every time momentum is building. ‘The Further I Slide’ is the sort of song Gough almost certainly writes in his sleep every night. The lead single ‘You Were Right’ uses celebrity name-dropping to distract the listener as it meanders along in search of a chorus.

 

It’s impossible to say how the album might have turned out had it not been for the distraction of About A Boy, but the result was a record high on production values but a little low on inspiration.

 

Was Gough aiming himself too squarely at a mainstream audience? This was an accusation being thrown at him by discerning critics. And if Gough was indeed planning for the major leagues, then the move backfired, as Have You Fed The Fish? did not come close to matching the popularity of his earlier work. Yes, he’d developed a reputation as a compelling live performer, but as Q Magazine discreetly put it, he was one of the greatest contemporary live acts that could go either way.

 


Year of the rat


Outside of Chinese astrological circles, rats are not popular creatures, and so when Badly Drawn Boy returned to the airwaves in 2004 with a new single, ‘Year of the Rat’, there was always the risk that his public might not be especially enthused.

 

Okay, so this is a fatuous statement (and it’s a perfectly decent song). But it’s fair to say that ‘Year of the Rat’ and the full-length release accompanying it, One Plus One Is One, were not particularly welcomed by anyone, landing him both the worst reviews of his career along with the worst sales to boot.

 

One Plus One Is One is not an album full of rodents. The problem is that it’s an average record delivered at a moment when Gough needed a more powerful response to keep the wheels of his musical career moving. The title track is pleasant but, like ‘You Were Right’ before it, has a meandering quality that even a powerful brass interlude can’t dispel. ‘Easy Love’ channels Nick Drake but lacks his deftness of touch. ‘Summertime in Wintertime’ reminds us why flutes and rock music are a risky combination. The poignant beauty of ‘This is That New Song’ is diminished by one too many trite generalities, by now an all-too-common theme within Gough’s output, and something that critics were attributing to his continued pursuit of mainstream accolade.

 

While the best moments on One Plus One Is One are at least the equal of those on Have You Fed The Fish?, there just aren’t enough on either. Gough’s idiosyncratic personality and honesty in interviews continued to make him an engaging artist, but his music was becoming less and less memorable, and Gough opted to leave his record label soon after it became clear that One Plus One Is One was going nowhere sales-wise. The question was: what could he do to arrest the decline and restore his appeal?

 


I don’t know who I am anymore

 

There’s a moment in a later Hugh Grant rom-com, Music & Lyrics, in which Grant, playing a washed-up 80s pop singer who has lately recovered his songwriting spark, announces his comeback with a newly penned track called ‘Don’t Write Me Off Just Yet’.

 

It’s unquestionably the worst song in the movie, guaranteed to induce the unfortunate listener into the realisation that yes, it is absolutely time to write him off. This is what it felt like trying to be a Badly Drawn Boy fan in the mid-00s. Each new album came with renewed fanfare and the promise of musical redemption. Until you actually heard it.

 

Case in point is 2006’s Born in the UK.

 

The initial sessions for the record were aborted, with Gough returning to his notebook and writing a song a day for four months to try and improve the quality of the material. He claimed that he wanted to “capture something about being British or English” with his new album. Perhaps appropriately, the result was a confused mess.

 

The signs of confusion are there from the first minute, in which Gough proclaims that he doesn’t know who he is anymore. ‘Swimming Pool’ is a regrettable way to begin an album. The album’s title track starts promisingly before becoming entangled in its own chorus. ‘Degrees of Separation’ is a disaster of a melody. ‘Welcome to the Overground’ attempts to recreate the ethereal wooziness of Bewilderbeast and ends up sounding disconcertingly like Santana. And that’s just the first four songs.

 

With hindsight, there’s something Hardy-esque about the fateful manner in which Gough abandoned his creative and artistic strengths in pursuit of the kind of mainstream recognition for which he was so obviously ill-suited. Having set out to emulate some of his songwriting idols on Born in the UK, he wound up sounding desperate.

 

Reminders of Gough’s former songwriting prowess can be found on ‘The Way Things Used To Be’ and ‘The Long Way Round’, should you make it that far. But these tracks can’t rescue the record and, Born in the UK marked the point at which many fans – this writer included – decided that, sadly, it was time to write off Badly Drawn Boy. 

 


Over the cliff and back

 

So we come to It’s What I’m Thinking Pt.1: Photographing Snowflakes – the album that didn’t sell, and that would provoke the Badly Drawn Meltdown.

 

It’s a perfectly decent record, all told, one that’s more comfortable in its skin than anything Gough had produced for a decade. But as we’ve insinuated, Badly Drawn Boy was no longer a relevant force within the music scene. He had created some solid work at last, and no one was paying a blind bit of attention. The LA blowout followed soon after and was, in turn, followed by further blowouts at even less auspicious venues. Having been compared to Elliott Smith at the outset of his career, Badly Drawn Boy was now being lambasted for failing to respect the memory of his departed peer at the lowest of low key tribute shows.

 

In truth, these all-too-public disintegrations had been going on for years – fuelled in no small part by Gough’s drinking, which would eventually lead to the break of his relationship in 2011, provoking a further downward spiral.

 

However, our badly drawn pop star had one final trick up his sleeve. In 2015, Gough took The Hour of the Bewilderbeast out on the road to mark its 15th anniversary, to a wave of critical fanfare. The tour was hardly a cash cow; rather, it should be viewed as a well-timed shot at redemption following the series of career mishaps preceding it (let’s be honest, no one celebrates the 15th anniversary of anything with aplomb, unless there is precious little else to celebrate.)

 

The tour reminded fans and armchair listeners alike that, once upon a time, Badly Drawn Boy had made an album well worthy of the attention it received. For The Hour of The Bewilderbeast is indeed an enduringly special record.

 

‘Once Around The Block’ and ‘Disillusion’ sound as vibrant today as they did at the time. Stone on the Water’ and ‘Pissing in the Wind’ are worlds apart and yet equally sensational. And, crucially, songs like ‘Everybody’s Stalking’‘Another Pearl’ and ‘Magic In The Air’ genuinely don’t sound like they could have been created by anyone else.

 

It’s a woozy, ethereal masterpiece that cursed its creator by becoming every bit as popular as it deserved. But by presenting Bewilderbeast to contemporary audiences, Gough had at least been able to demonstrate that some of his work had stood the test of time.

 


Bewildered but not bereft

 

Freed from the vestiges of his former career, in 2020, Badly Drawn Boy emerged from the wilderness with his best record since Bewilderbeast, Banana Skin Shoes. He showed us that he was neither a flash in the pan nor the British songwriter laureate people once supposed him to be. He was simply a woolly-hatted bloke with a guitar, writing with honesty and conviction and finding his voice for the first time in years:

 

“The true test is how you feel when you’re alone /

The best part is that the future’s unknown /

And the next part of our story’s untold.”

 

Today, Badly Drawn Boy is in his 50s. He’s sober and sounds happy to be sober; he’s coping well with an array of different medical difficulties uncovered during his time away from music; he’s no longer trying so hard to court mainstream success.

 

Gough won’t be remembered as a 21st Century Nick Drake, nor go down in history as one of Britain’s most celebrated pop troubadours. He’s been consigned to the fringes of musical relevance, and the sad likelihood is that even The Hour of the Bewilderbeast will eventually fade from memory. But make no mistake, he can still pen a first-rate pop tune when he puts his mind to it.


 

Tom Kirkham

www.tomkirkham.co.uk / @finestworktom

Image: Badly Drawn Boy, Cardiff 2005 - Wikimedia Commons

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