For their part, the band have had some real adventures. They’ve scaled the charts and plunged to depths of despair, crossed seas, left cities behind them.
It started in a shed, or a garage, or whatever you want to call it – a building at the bottom of a garden where you could make a lot of noise. Richard was playing drums in a thrash band / punk band / metal band. Whatever they were, they made a lot of noise.
His older brother said: “If I was in a band I’d do it like this…”
A new band was formed. They couldn’t play. Danny made them practice five nights a week nonetheless. Richard tuned his guitar by tightening the strings as far as they’d go because he didn’t know any better. The bassist didn’t have a bass. He wouldn’t or couldn’t buy a bass. The singer sacked him. “If you’re going to play bass, it helps to own a bass.”
A drummer auditioned. He’d been drumming since he was 11 and had been in loads of bands, like everyone who wants to be in a band. This new band couldn’t play and didn’t have any songs, but the guitarist was doing something interesting with delay pedals, and ten minutes with the singer – passionate, wide-eyed, full of belief and commitment if not prowess – convinced Mike. They might be in a shed at the bottom of the garden right now, but they were definitely going somewhere.
They stuck an advert for a new bassist in the local Free Ads, because they couldn’t afford to advertise in NME or Melody Maker. Steve had given up being in bands because he had a wife and a job and all the bands he’d been in had been rubbish anyway. He was looking for a wardrobe in the Free Ads because his cat was messing up his only suit by scratching it when it hung from the back of the door. He checked the “musicians wanted” section out of habit. This lot were only up the road and they liked The Pixies and Ride, so why not? He could put up with them liking REM. When he tried out he realised they couldn’t play and didn’t have any songs anyway (and there was his wife and his job to consider), but ten minutes with the singer, who couldn’t really sing and didn’t really know how to write a song, convinced him as well. It couldn’t be any worse than the time he’d lived in a friend’s garden for three months, surely?
Richard had a strange habit of setting himself on fire and jumping off railway bridges. Not just as a kid; as an adult. Steve sometimes had acid flashbacks, during which people would take advantage of him at pool. Danny, intense fucker, once stuck a screwdriver in his own arm to convince someone he was telling the truth. Mike is a drummer, and we all know what they’re like.
They had a couple of songs by now, and practiced five nights a week at Mike’s house, headphones on, so all the neighbours could hear was stamping. They wouldn’t play a gig until they were totally ready, until they had the songs and the telepathy: What was the point otherwise? Richard dreamed songs in his sleep, while Danny stayed up late at night fighting with them, trying to drag them out of himself and beat them into shape. He couldn’t really play guitar but sometimes his hands would shape a chord and then a melody would spill out of his guts. A handful of the songs seemed like something special. There was a country-ish one, another that people said sounded like Sly & The Family Stone (but which actually started with The Beatles, in a vague way), and a grand one with big ideas that wasn’t quite finished. Weeks turned into months turned into a couple of years. They stripped back how they made music to nothing and started again from scratch, just so they knew they were themselves and not some other band. At one point they settled on a name. Don’t ask how or why; they can’t remember. But it was better than Curious Orange.
They were recording in Beaumont Street Studios with a guy called Dave Creffield trying to get a demo together in a rush because people wanted one. Hookers outside the door were touting their wares. They decided they needed a string arrangement for the song with big ideas. Dave said he knew someone who played bass for another local band who’d be able to do it, some guy who could play piano and summon orchestras from a synthesizer. So they gave him an hour to write the string section one night while everyone else panicked about the demo, which was due soon, or slept, because they needed to. Mickey wrote the string part, handed it to Danny, and said: “This is alright but I could make it better.” Danny said: “No, that’s it, that’s amazing!” It sounded a little like John Lennon’s “musical orgasm” in A Day In The Life. Danny hadn’t heard A Day In The Life. After months of gestation, All You Good Good People was born.
The demo was sent out, to management rather than record companies, because they wanted things to be done properly, and because they didn’t know what else to do. A handful of gigs had built up a heady local following, but they wouldn’t go to London. Which was OK because in 1996, thanks to their new management, London came to Leeds. They organised industry showcase gigs for the band on home turf? After one gig a short guy with long blonde hair, who looked like a woman from a distance, stormed towards the band and demanded to work with them. He ran Hut Recordings from a spare attic room somewhere inside the Virgin Records building. They signed. The demo of All You Good Good People became their first single, a limited edition 7″ released via Fierce Panda. It sold out in a couple of hours. People “in the industry” were saying it was the freshest thing they’d heard since Fools Gold.
A handful of gigs followed, including the 100 Club on Oxford Street, and garnered psychotic press attention. Richard: “There seemed to be a competition to see who could write the most complimentary review about us. We thought we were shit.” Danny: “Every crazy thing someone said about us, I tried to beat. It gave us something to aim for.” Wouldn’t you? Even The Guardian proclaimed them as “the first truly excellent new band in some time.” They supported Manic Street Preachers at enormodomes before they’d toured the country properly on their own. In America they signed to behemoths Geffen (sadly right before David Geffen decided to follow his dreams and left), the deal inked on a tablecloth because the A&R forgot to bring a copy of the contract. They did a gig for Radio 1 and right before they went onstage Paranoid Android by Radiohead received its debut radio play. Danny, belief swollen on adrenaline, nerves and beta blockers, thought they were the only band who could possibly follow it, and said so. Onstage he proclaimed: “Britpop’s over.” Later on he bumped into Alan McGee.
Danny: “You missed us.”
McGee: “No, I caught the set.”
Danny: “No, you didn’t sign us.”
And then they released a couple of EPs on Hut. They wanted to release one every two months, and managed it, for two months. While recording the first they deafened Massive Attack’s producer and cost him tens of thousands of pounds in lost work. They decided to produce themselves after that, because they didn’t trust anyone else. The EP itself was perfectly formed, two shocks of blinding white heat separated and juxtaposed by two moments of absolute, crystalline heartbreak. The video was for the dirtiest song, and showed them trashing a house party, standing atop a hill, making waves. They were on the cover of The Times on the day Labour came into power in May 1997, and their first proper release landed in the top 40 that weekend. It seemed like something important was happening.
They played a three-night residency at The Institute for Contemporary Arts, down the road from Buckingham Palace. They were supposed to play Glastonbury but that year the stage sank in the mud; their slot was cancelled. Danny ended up singing That’s All Changed Forever solo, live on Radio 1 in the morning, reading lyrics from a piece of paper taped to a cardboard box because he’d only just written it. One time he bet Jo Whiley £50 on-air that Higher Sights would be their first number one single. He still hasn’t paid up. It still could be.
The lead track from the second EP was mixed by Steve Osbourne and then remixed by Paul Oakenfold, a dirty Mafioso terrace chant with a slashing riff and thundering rhythm. The remix became Pete Tong’s single of the week for about a month, not the norm for boys with guitars. At one gig in Leeds that particular song nearly levelled the venue, such was the response from the crowd. On another night in Bristol they played it twice, the second time as an Impromptu set-closer, just because the crowd were so up for it. The EP peaked at 21 in the charts. Every day was better than the last because that’s how it was meant to be.
They re-recorded All You Good Good People with “40 fat blokes and a timpani player”, trying to make it as massive and as grand as it should be. It went top ten. This meant they were pop stars! They filmed an exclusive session at Abbey Road, accompanied by a full orchestra, made it even bigger still. They said they had another song called Someday which was 12 minutes long and the best thing they’d ever done, but which they were saving because they weren’t good enough for it yet. They said most of the second album was already written, and was “psychedelic”.
They finally got round to recording the first album. Then they re-recorded it. Then they spent ages buggering around with it. At the last minute Youth, long hair and London drawl and all, was drafted in to whip them into shape, re-recording All You Good Good People again (faster now) and making them sort out a new song they’d written, a song they’d wanted to make as UP as they possibly could. They called it Come Back To What You Know. Another top ten hit.
The album entered the charts at number one. One time Danny was waiting for a train, and saw a poster for his band’s record on the platform. He tried to recreate the pose he pulled for the cover, shot on the streets of New York, and felt a little foolish for a second. The Good Will Out sold over 500,000 copies in the UK. They released the doomed swoop of My Weakness Is None Of Your Business as a single, just to see if they could get “that type of song” in the charts. It had been written in ten spare minutes while the band were recording the demo of All You Good Good People. It became their third top ten hit. That autumn they headlined a major tour, selling out venues they’d been in as fans a year before. Mickey decided to take the plunge and joined the band full-time rather than just being the bloke who played piano and wrote the string parts. They said they wanted their second album to be looser and more soulful. Richard stopped setting himself on fire and got married. They felt on top of the world. Because they were.
After the dust of their debut died down, they retreated to a country mansion for a year and a day, with occasional stays in a claustrophobic Leeds bunker to break up the tedium of fresh air. They did no press, made no collaborations, played no gigs, simply set about making their second record as well as they could. On the first weekend in the mansion they recorded two songs to test the acoustics and realised they were nailing “moments of magic,” according to Steve, who would like to believe in UFOs if he didn’t know for sure that they existed anyway. Together and alone, apart from their co-producer, they learnt how to be a band again, jumped out of windows in the mansion, looked for ghosts in the cellar, ate generic yeast-based foodstuffs by the catering tub, got the bongos and the Zappa-esque keyboard solos out. They realised that rather than having to base everything devoutly on a song, they could exploit the sheer sound they made as a band – one song was just the band jamming some thump-funk for a laugh at the end of another tune, Danny jumping up and down in the recording room yelling “This is brilliant! Record this!” It took them an age to find 12 useable bars without his excited exhortations ruining the DAT… They swung microphones around their heads, played with loops, turntables, encouraged the drummer to play clarinet and made their “psychedelic wig-out” album, which they thought would bring about World Peace, Wyld Stallions style, because if half a million people had bought their first record, then at least that number and then some would buy their second, surely?
That November they dipped a toe into the waters of a pop world besotted with Britney and her boyfriend, brandishing Hooligan, a tune written in five minutes when they should have been doing something else and that featured a kazoo solo (because that’s what Richard thought Hendrix had used on Crosstown Traffic). Steve had dyed his hair blonde; Richard had grown his into dreadlocks. Why not? In January 2000 they played a comeback gig for NME at London’s Astoria which, if you were there, was the most jubilant thing on earth. They debuted a funk number that appeared to be three tunes all run into each other but still only needed two chords. They played a song that started like heartbreak and suddenly, halfway through its life, realised it could explode in delirious technicolour streams, and so did. They seemed like a different band without being different, capable of new things as well as old. Just as passionate as before, but now injected with a new energy, creativity, humour.
On the first day of the first spring of the second millennium, they unleashed their second album by playing a loud, sweaty gig to 700 devoted fans in an exclusive nightclub in the heart of London. Richard missed CD:UK the previous weekend because he’d made himself ill by holding his guitar in a weird way. The band decided they’d like to play secret gigs in unusual locations, intending to pass out mobile phone numbers to fans via hidden clues like some throwback to that rave thing from a decade earlier. You’re Not Alone, Motowntastic horns and all, got to number 14 in the UK, but number one in Thailand. When they journeyed out to experience their South East Asian fame they were showered with presents by screaming fans. One of the band was given the gift of a nose-flute. It was like Beatlemania without the wigs.
Back in the UK they booked two gigs at the burnished ostentation of Blackpool Tower Ballroom over May Bank Holiday weekend, and then blazed a trail of stand-alone gigs across the country. An MTV showcase in London the day after Blackpool; an impromptu busk with a dozen fans on a Somerset beach that was filmed for a future single which featured Danny buried up to his neck in sand; an intimate guerrilla affair dressed in army fatigues deep in forest glades by a reservoir in the Pennines; a weekend rave for 200 people in a Cornish quarry replete with DJs and mad scientist outfits; a high-profile Radio 1 affair in Wolverhampton; playing Glastonbury immediately after Happy Mondays and before Bowie; uniting the masses at T In The Park (the peak of their career so far, they thought)… each gig different, each gig special, each gig delirious. Somehow in the middle of this they managed to find time to play gigs across Europe and even further afield too – Osaka Big Cat in Japan was rocked a few days before Wolverhampton. It was an extraordinary summer.
Two more singles followed – the bundle of funk energy and then a sweet, sun-kissed pop moment (replete with Somerset beach burial video) – but neither set the charts alight as earlier efforts had. They still nestled comfortably in the top 40 though (Richard chasing himself and diving through plate glass windows in the other video), and in the tumult of gigs and musical epiphanies the charts seemed to matter a little less. To finish the year 2000 they toured once more, filling venues across the country with rapturous fans again, and debuted a pair of new songs. One of them was a slow-burning, atmospheric journey not quite like anything they’d written before, drawn-out, dramatic and hypnotic. They called it Over.
2001 found the band starting the year two-hundred feet below ground, debuting more new songs to 100 fans in the Hellfire Caves of West Wycombe, having to keep the volume further down then they would like lest they cause a cave-in. Danny had surreptitiously advertised the gig by wearing a coded t-shirt on television during an appearance on Never Mind the Buzzcocks. After that they headed to the studio again, eager to capture the creative energy from the hijinks and escapades of the previous year. Can you catch time by the tail?
By July the band were ready to roll out their third album, and invited fans who jumped through hoops and solved puzzles to join them for another secret gig, this time at the mansion where Drawn From Memory had been recorded, an event filmed for posterity (and Channel 4). The gig itself was joyous, intimate and honest, and immediately after its closure the band and fans retreated to the grand terrace gardens for a debut playback of the new record.
Sadly, arguably, inevitably (hindsight always offers 20:20 vision) the third album saw our heroes losing their way slightly. The machinations and manoeuvres of record companies denied them space to breath and backing too, both during recording and afterwards; the lead single triumphed at number 14 in the charts but the follow-up barely dented the top 40, and subconscious paranoia crept into the music where once had been jubilant defiance. They had conquered songs they thought were new peaks for them – the dark, evolving drama of Over; a harmonious, stomping Beach Boys homage for the near title track; a glacial, atmospheric ballad that slowly exposed its heart, which they called Satellites – but it wasn’t enough. They toured again, with projectors and lights and ideas galore, but the venues that had been full a year before were less densely packed. Burdened by a debt to Hut that stretched to seven figures and seen as having peaked far too early, they were cast aside; a bronze farewell in the shape of a singles compilation was the only consolation. It had been meant to celebrate their b-sides, better than most bands’ singles, but that seemed an impossibility now. Even amidst this though, they managed to fill the Royal Albert hall, both sonically and literally, for what might have been one last hurrah at the outset of 2002.
Might have been, but most certainly was not. Retreating and rebuilding, they constructed their own studio in a barn at Richard’s house. Mickey nearly died when he fell down a ladder, pulling an industrial sander down on top of him. Things were bleak. Before long they were signed again though, this time by the man who had resurrected Paul Weller and introduced Portishead and Travis to the world. New label Independiente didn’t want things rushed though, and neither did the band. A period of exile began, during which the band would write and rehearse furiously and desperately, like they had done almost a decade earlier, before EPs and hit singles and hype and tours and rock ‘n’ roll each took their toll.
Two years passed. Each time the band brought new songs to Andy Macdonald at the label he told them to go away and make them better. Mike got married. By the end of 2003 they were nearly ready, more than a dozen new songs written, and so they played three pseudonymous gigs at Leeds Cockpit that December to test new material. Things went well. Finally, at the end of their financial, emotional and creative tethers, they were ready to head back into the studio.
This time they wanted a producer who could bring more to the band than engineering skills. They wanted someone with creative input and opinions, someone who would push them, challenge them, make them work. They made a list, checked it twice, and crossed off names until a handful remained. Considering their options and the criteria they had decided upon, they realised they had already worked with someone who fitted the bill, many years before. And so at the start of 2004 they went into the studio with Youth again and fought for their lives.
Three months of hell ensued. Voices were raised as expectations were met head-first with bloody minded creativity. The advance money ran out; Richard and Danny started selling possessions and equipment via internet auctions so they could continue to write. Mike took a job painting houses, Mickey selling advertising, Steve industrial welding. Things were thrown, tears were shed; at various points different members of the band walked out as Youth pushed them, cajoled them, and bullied them further than anyone had before. Danny confronted the label in tears, begging them to tell Youth to listen to him, that it was his album. They said no. They were right – pushed beyond their limits, the band found a seam of something they assumed had left them somewhere along the line. Things were falling into place. Someday, which they had spoken of in 1997, was finally completed. When an old friend who they had helped on his way to great heights came along and gave them a song he thought sounded more like them than his own band, it was the final piece, almost.
That came with a last-minute call to perform at V2004; a band who had been working day jobs literally days before suddenly held 40,000 rapt and euphoric, and the comeback was underway. The donated song became their biggest chart hit since before their debut album, nestling the band comfortably back in the top ten. The weekend before it was released they returned to Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London, and shook the rafters down with passion. London crowds are notoriously fickle, but they were powerless here; front to back, everyone had raised arms, everyone jumping. They played a gig in a scout hut where they had grown up. They busked for balloon-carrying fans in Leicester Square and fled from the police when they came to see what all the noise was about. Once again, something was happening and could not be stopped.
Their fourth album surpassed the opening week sales of their much-hyped debut, and was their second number one. In celebration they took a handful of fans who cracked codes and made films to a yacht in Spain for a magical gig. They busked across the country from the back of a military truck, beneath the Angel of the North and in a supermarket car park. They toured properly again, returning to venues they had last visited three years before and had worried they would never play again. The next single, a pounding, euphoric anthem that seemed to be the very essence of the band, teetered on the cusp of the top ten. They were signed to an American label for the second time. Trips were made stateside; noisy, excessive rock ‘n’ roll sojourns to LA and New York.
A third single in February 2005 also charted on the edge of the top ten. Once again the band was releasing b-sides that overshadowed the singles of their contemporaries, such was the seam of creativity they had hit. They ventured on another tour, filled the same venues over again, raised the crowds even further, headed for Europe and then back to America once more, this time in the company of friends. At almost every turn they had a new song to play to people. A massive outdoor gig was announced in the middle of Leeds city centre to start the summer. It sold out so they announced another one the next day. That sold out too. They could have gone on announcing them. It was a triumph, a homecoming valediction. They filmed the gigs and released a DVD later in the year. At the twilight of summer they played a gig at the edge of the country in front of an illuminated biodome to four thousand people. Their old label and current label bowed to sense, collaborated, and finally released a compilation showcasing the band’s b-sides. This time, instead of expecting every twist, every triumph, every new peak, the band enjoyed it, savoured it.
A word about that seam of creativity. In the past it had always been Danny and Richard who had written songs for the band, bringing them to the band to arrange them. While recording their fourth record Youth encouraged them to write as a unit, jam together and see what happens. The final two tracks of their comeback album demonstrated this, showing new realms of imagination and sound for them to explore, new methods of writing. Which was just as well; the singer no longer felt able to write alone, no longer wanted to pick up a guitar or sit at a piano and fight with it until a tune emerged. When the label suggested they head back into the studio with Youth at the start of 2005, Danny baulked, but nine days in Spain produced the bones of more than twenty songs. Accompanied by his band in a way they hadn’t travelled before, he wouldn’t have to write alone again, and neither would Richard.
2005 ended and climaxed at the same time, as the band played their three biggest headline dates ever, filling arenas in London, Manchester and Glasgow. They opened these gigs with a song they had never played before, a stream of lights and new sounds unrolled all at once.
And all of this has been leading them where? Here, to this very moment, to this music. Embrace celebrate spring 2006 by releasing their fifth album. The journey they’re on isn’t about reputation or perfection. It’s about romance, about adventure, about passion. Your reach should always exceed your grasp. Because otherwise what’s the point? Set your sights too high and you might just reach them.
Watch all three upcoming Widespread Panic shows at Red Rocks via nugs.tv live streams.
Watch Vampire Weekend cover The Doors’ “Peace Frog” on Saturday night at Charlotte Metro Credit Union Amphitheatre in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Phish closed out the second show of their two-night stand at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland with a six-song second set and a four-song encore that will not soon be forgotten.
Umphrey’s McGee teamed with drummer Jason Bonham to deliver a special third set of Led Zeppelin covers during Sunday’s concert at Red Rocks.
John Mayer played Jerry Garcia’s Wolf guitar at last night’s Dead & Company show at Citi Field in New York City.