Saturday, July 10, 2021

The artists that time forgot: The Boo Radleys

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.


For pop radio listeners, three Britpop classics were impossible to avoid in the British summer of 1995: Pulp’s Common PeopleAlright by Supergrass, and The Boo Radleys’ triumphant top ten hit Wake Up Boo!. It was by far The Boo Radleys’ most successful single to date. And yet, somehow, it destroyed their career.


The Britpop movement ensnared many a decent band. Both Pulp and Supergrass struggled to navigate a way out of it, despite being a cut above the Britpop rabble, creatively speaking. For all of their subsequent critical praise, they are still best remembered for their mid-90s output.


The Boo Radleys, however, are barely remembered at all. The band tried to extricate themselves from the cliché of Britpop and blew themselves up in the process. Their biggest hit alienated their old audience; their follow-up material sent their new audience running for the hills. Just three years after ‘Wake Up Boo!’, the feel-good single of a particularly feel-good year, the band was no more.


It’s a disconcerting saga that haunts songwriter and lead guitarist Martin Carr to this day. This is the story of how it unfolded…


If you want it, take it


The logical place to start unpacking The Boo Radleys’ story is Giant Steps, the part-rock, part-psychedelic collage of songs and soundscapes that the NME and Select magazine cited as one of the top two albums of 1993.


To place higher than the darlings of early Britpop, Suede, was no mean feat. Okay, so The Boo Radleys’ record company, Creation, was fast becoming the coolest label in the country. But Giant Steps also topped the NME readers’ poll that year. After forming in the Wirral and spending several years on the North West music circuit as a largely ignored shoegaze band, The Boo Radleys had found form and secured themselves an audience. And they’d done it without abandoning the wide-eyed innocence of their early work.


Giant Steps is an incredibly eclectic and, at times, highly peculiar album. But it’s not all that different to the band’s DIY debut release, Ichabod and I, which was put out in 1990 by a tiny Preston-based record shop and is today only available on YouTube. The same goes for their first album ‘proper’, 1992’s Everything’s Alright Forever, which created minor ripples at the edge of the British musical waterfront. Each record offers more confident songwriting and better production than the one before it, but the blueprint is broadly the same.


Not that this blueprint is particularly easy to categorise. Right from the off, The Boo Radleys had displayed an apparent unwillingness to settle upon a consistent sound, style or genre. And while other bands might have been cowed by their own indecision, Carr & co. approached each new change of direction (which usually occurred on a track-by-track basis) as though it was the most natural thing on the planet.


On Giant Steps, they veer from the jangly hand-clapping indie of ‘Wish I Was Skinny’ into the distortion-drenched crescendo of ‘Leaves and Sand’ without batting an eyelid. They journey from dub bass and beats to noise rock and back again within the four minutes and 50 seconds of ‘Upon 9th and Fairchild’‘Butterfly McQueen’ is gloriously harmonious, upbeat acoustic-led pop music for all of two minutes before a storm descends on the song. This promptly morphs into ‘Rodney King (Song for Lenny Bruce)’, a disjointed and yet oddly compelling interpretation of the ‘baggy’ scene.


Singer Simon Rowbottom, better known as Sice, recently shared some music musings that hint at why The Boo Radleys were so hard to pin down. “There are very few albums that I will listen to all the way through from start to finish. I’ll hear a song and just f*****g love it, and then move on.”


This really does sum up Giant Steps. It’s an album that remains worthy of the praise and attention it received at the time, and critics were right to laud Martin Carr’s technicolour vision and songwriting prowess‘I Hang Suspended’ is majestic (and a favourite of Creation label-mate Noel Gallagher). ‘Thinking of Ways’ wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Pet Sounds. The accomplished indie-pop of ‘If You Want It, Take It’ offers a sneak preview of the band’s future direction. It also features the telling lyrics, “If you want it, take it all / There’s nothing cool about having to go without.”


For all the buzz and critical acclaim now surrounding the group, Martin Carr wanted something more. He wanted a hit record.


Dancing close to the flame


The final single from Giant Steps, ‘Lazarus’, reached number 50 in the UK charts – not bad for possibly the least radio-friendly single of 1994, but hardly a breakthrough moment in the band’s career. However, holed up in a flat in Preston, Carr was busy working away on the song that would change everything for The Boo Radleys.


With its instantly recognisable 60s-soul-influenced brass intro and effortlessly catchy chorus, ‘Wake Up Boo!’ is irrepressibly sunny and optimistic – perfect chart fodder, despite its lyrical themes of death, fate and finality. This internal contradiction may stem from the song’s inception – Carr has since explained that it’s “A song about staying up all night. Mushrooms, I think it was… And then celebrating the morning for five minutes before going back to bed.”


Creation Records mogul Alan McGee, never a man to mince his words, was particularly scathing about The Boo Radleys’ commercially-minded direction, describing ‘Wake Up Boo!’ as an ‘atrocity exhibition’ (although Carr claimed he liked it at the time.) Irrespective of the record label tension that may or may not have existed, the track received relentless airtime upon its release in February 1995, charting at number nine, selling 200,000 copies and paving the way for a chart-topping album just one month later.


Wake Up! was only number one for a week, but the album would remain in the charts for the best part of six months, aided by the public’s newfound love of guitar-based pop songs. Reflecting on the period, Carr claims that “I tried to have nothing to do with what was being called Britpop. Our whole career was spent trying not to fit in. We just carried on doing what we had been doing.”


And it is through this lens that Wake Up! should be evaluated. For like Giant Steps before it, the album is extraordinarily, endlessly rewarding.


Yes, the songwriting is more focused and muscular than on the band’s early work, and in ‘Wake Up Boo!’‘It’s Lulu’ and ‘Find The Answer Within’, there are three killer pop singles. But the wide-eyed innocence remains, and the accusation that the band had somehow ‘sold out’ seems wildly inaccurate. Break down ‘Wake Up Boo!’ into its component parts – structure, chord progression, melody – and it becomes apparent that the song is incredibly complex, resembling absolutely nothing else in the charts at the time (let alone any of the bands on the Britpop bandwagon). Similarly, when was the last time anyone heard a pop song was built upon a five-note xylophone riff, as is the case with ‘Find The Answer Within’?


Away from the heavy-hitters, ‘Fairfax Scene’ is a beautiful acoustic comfort blanket of a song. Two tracks later, ‘Joel’ begins precisely the same way, only this time the blanket is set on fire halfway through, and a heavily distorted bass takes over. ‘Reaching Out From Here’ is perfect pop melancholia. ‘Martin, Doom! It’s Seven O’Clock’ is as blissfully eccentric as its title suggests and concludes with a breathtaking brass crescendo that bears little relation to the rest of the song. ‘Wilder’ isn’t content with being a closing piano ballad and sticks around for a further few minutes of backwards vocals and sonic experimentation underpinned by chilled-out jazz bass.


Albums that sound like Wake Up! don’t generally reach number one. It’s remarkable that The Boo Radleys were able to successfully channel their ‘throw everything at the wall’ creative approach into an album with genuine popular appeal.


In fact, critics at the time responded warmly to the record. While Wake Up! wasn’t anyone’s album of the year, it was undoubtedly in the mix. And yet, as Sice sang in ‘It’s Lulu’, they were “Dancing close to the flame”. Openly pursuing commercial success, lumped in with the Britpop crowd and embraced by mainstream luminaries such as DJ Chris Evans, it’s understandable why many of The Boo Radleys’ early adopters were turned off the band and would not return to the fold.


Worse still, success had done little to improve Carr’s troubled mindset (he would later be diagnosed with ADHD) or curb his self-destructive tendencies. As he put it, “Once I was in the NME, I thought ‘anyone can do this’ – same with Top Of The Pops and having a Number One. If I could do it, it wasn’t worth anything.”


Throw out your arms for a new sound


I almost went to see The Boo Radleys. It was 1996, back when you had to buy a physical copy of the NME or Melody Maker to see the latest gig listings. I noticed that they were listed to play Manchester’s G-Mex Exhibition Centre (today known as Manchester Central) and gave the venue a call to see if tickets were still available.


The venue informed me that it wasn’t a Boo Radleys headline show, but rather, they were one of several performers on the Smash Hits tour. Now, in case you’re unfamiliar with Smash Hits, it was a glossy teeny magazine that had its heyday in the 80s and, like so many publications, failed miserably to anticipate the rise of the internet. Credible music fans could not be seen with a copy of Smash Hits. It was the sort of magazine you’d buy if you wanted to find out what Boyzone were up to or why B*Witched had it in for the weatherman.


However, Smash Hits did attempt to court the Britpop generation in the mid-90s, inviting a limited contingent of wholly inappropriate rock bands to perform at its annual Poll Winner’s Party (the reaction to this performance by Radiohead is hilarious) and subjecting a handful of Britpop acts to protracted humiliation on the Smash Hits tour.


I opted against attending the tour and count myself thankful to have avoided a truly reprehensible lineup. It was remarkable that The Boo Radley were on the bill in the first place. While they had scored their first top ten hit a year earlier, they were now busy promoting follow-up record C’mon Kids, an album so disturbingly off-kilter that it divided the critics and created a chasm between the band and their newly acquired mainstream fans.


C’mon Kids is not the easiest record to describe. Nor to listen to. It includes a song about a gluttonous, ever-growing worm; at least half a dozen songs distort and disintegrate into all-out chaos; the brilliant lead single, ‘What’s In The Box (See Whatcha Got?)’, is in danger of being overwhelmed by its own energy; and on ‘Fortunate Sons’, Sice, sounding almost totally unrecognisable, attempts to rap.


It is heavy going, even for the musos who delight in the darker side of Giant Steps, and enough to give nightmares to anyone expecting a lush and sun-drenched Wake Up! Part Two. Sice has since explained that “We didn’t want to scare away the hit-kids, we wanted to take them with us to somewhere that we’d not been before… We were very surprised to find that it was seen as a deliberate attempt to scare away newly created fans.”


The lyrics to the title track echo this sentiment: “C’mon kids / Don’t do yourself down / Throw out your arms for a new sound.”


Unfortunately, this was an example of the band’s wide-eyed innocence counting against them for once. They had been naïve to expect that their mainstream audience would go with them on a journey in the first place, let alone embrace their most unconventional record yet. And now they seemed genuinely bewildered by their fans’ response.


Despite such clear and obvious barriers to C’mon Kids’ commercial success, the record company managed to get The Boo Radleys on the Smash Hits tour and secured a national television appearance on Top of the Pops to coincide with the release of the title track as the album’s second single. The band responded by saying the f-word, twice, and concluded the performance with 30 seconds of anguished screaming. They would not be invited back.


Kingsize, but barely noticed


The Boo Radleys’ final album, Kingsize, was released on 19th October 1998. It charted at number 62

and the band broke up a few weeks later. The decision had been in the offing for months. Carr and Sice were fed up and ready to pack things in as soon as the record was finished.


It’s ironic that they chose to wrap things up with their most direct and accessible album. Kingsize curbs the band’s eccentric tendencies in favour of slick, carefully crafted guitar pop, delicately augmented by strings, brass and the occasional harpsichord. ‘Heaven’s at the Bottom of this Glass’‘Adieu Clo Clo’ and ‘Comb Your Hair’ remind us of Merseyside’s longstanding affinity with melodic pop tones. ‘High as Monkeys’ and ‘Blue Room in Archway’, despite being at entirely different ends of the spectrum lyrically, both sound euphoric and uplifting. ‘The Old Newsstand at Hamilton Square’ would have made for a remarkable single – it sounds like a poppier Portishead attempting to score a Hitchcock film.


The only ‘difficult’ moment is the third track, ‘Free Huey’, an extraordinary concoction of drum & bass and fuzzy guitars that repeats its central refrain – “Don’t you know you gotta be all you can be” – 28 times in the space of three minutes. Predictably, the band chose this as the album’s first and only single. With a bargain-basement video that suggested Creation were no longer willing to bankroll them, ‘Free Huey’, endearing though it was, sounded like an act of self-sabotage by a band looking to call it quits.

One last hurrah? 


In a recent interview with former Boo Radleys bassist Tim Brown, now a music teacher, he explained that pupils are often shocked by the revelation he once performed on Glastonbury’s main stage. These A-Level students have no memory of Top of the Pops, let alone The Boo Radleys. 


The band’s story can be seen as a cautionary tale for up-and-coming indie artists – a classic case of ‘be careful what you wish for’. No sooner had The Boo Radleys arrived than they were on their way out. As Carr has admitted, “We probably started breaking up the day ‘Wake Up Boo!’ charted.” 


But the story also forces us to consider the shortcomings of a music industry that has, for decades, struggled to embrace boundary-pushing and innovation in favour of labels, badges and ‘movements’ designed to tar everyone with the same brush.  


Even today, artists are frequently miscategorised, mislabelled or plain misunderstood – by their labels, by the press, by the social media commentariat. They’ll spend the rest of their careers attempting to escape these labels and the movements into which they’ve been co-opted, haemorrhaging fans with every twist and turn.  


The Boo Radleys didn’t exactly help themselves, but they deserve better than their current profile as Britpop also-rans. So it’s encouraging to find that there’s a twist in the tale – the band is on the comeback trail, led by Sice (today a qualified psychologist) but without the involvement of Carr, whose own solo career has been a torturous affair 


In July 2021, a new single, ‘A Full Syringe and Memories of You’, was debuted on BBC Radio 6 Music by 90s indie stalwart Steve Lamacq. An EP is in the works; there’s the possibility of a tour too. 


It would make for the unlikeliest of conclusions, but who knows? Perhaps The Boo Radleys may yet find an audience that appreciates their leftfield, kaleidoscopic pop genius.  



Tom Kirkham / @finestworktom

Image: Bertrand Bosredon 

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