I Went to See Johnny Borrell and it was Really Depressing
Johnny Borrell, in worse times
In case you didn’t catch the Buzzfeed listicle, the noughties are over. Getting prematurely nostalgic about defunct Disney Channel series and Diablo II seems pretty harmless but spare a thought for the troubadours who played in some form of British indie band during the decade (or at least dressed as if they did). For them, the mid 2000s were halcyon days, a time when anyone with a Topman giftcard, a few lyrics about getting pissed in an M25 satellite town and a hook up on the door at White Heat got you a guaranteed spot on next year’s NME Cool List.
For some reason, this Meighan era wasn’t to last. Maybe because at its core, indie music is pretty boring: it was all about members of The Rakes kissing girls at work, or Good Shoes writing an ode to their local shit dump of a town. It's hardly waking up in a new Bugatti, is it?
Post-indie, many former Artrocker cover stars tried to find work as mere mortals. Ricky Wilson is going to be a judge on The Voice, Dominic Masters works in the financial sector, and I'm 100% sure I saw the drummer from the View in the Angel branch of Gap.
But indie Adonis Johnny Borrell refuses to bend to the whims of the zeitgeist or the demands of the market. Currently on “hiatus” from Razorlight, Borrell spent last year in France making a “self liberating” solo album with his old bass player and a seventeen-year-old busker called Joao.
The album was released a few months ago, and it turned out Borrell fans don’t really dig sax solos. The album sold less than 600 copies in its first week and even Borrell’s record label played him for the lulz, releasing a press statement with the brutal line: “So far we've achieved 0.00015% sales of Adele's 21 – and 0.03% sales of this week's No. 1 album from Jahmene Douglas.”
Feeling kind of sorry for J-Bo and determined to find at least one person who bought Borrell 1, I dusted off my boho chic tunic dress and headed to his gig at The Ruby Lounge in Manchester.
According to Borrell HQ, the choice of venues for his current solo tour is an attempt to “embrace the intimacy of the nation’s smaller venues” (read: we couldn’t shift enough tickets to book the O2 Academy) but The Ruby Lounge made a fitting Bozza comeback arena for reasons beside its 375 person capacity: the comfy sofas round the side, the proximity to Debenhams - this club embodies the home by eleven rock'n'roll experience on which Borrell has premised his entire career.
When I arrived, things were strangely quiet. Clocking the riot barrier, I asked the woman on the door if the gig is sold out. It’s not. But even with the low turnout, I braced myself for a few Razorlight devotees, people who stayed faithful to their white-skinny-jeaned commander through every line up change and damaging pull quote. Oh, here they are now:
I took a closer look at Borrell’s scant audience. The enthusiastic glances at their Twitter feeds, the Red Stripe, the recovering fringes: these were the unmistakable signs of PTID - post-traumatic indie disorder. These brave men and women never recovered from that time they snogged Alex Zane in 2005. They still run tubs of Shockwaves through their ever-thinning manes, desperate to go back to a time when you could dress in third-hand corduroy and still go home with a Queen of Noise. I asked them a few questions, mostly to see if they could even talk English without breaking into "22 Grand Job".
Noisey: Did you buy a copy of Borrell 1?
Jamie: No but I’ve heard a couple of the things. I just saw Johnny Borrell was playing here and I thought, it can’t be too bad.
His album sold 594 copies in its first week.
Really? I did not know that. Yeah I’m not gonna lie, I was expecting there to be a much bigger turnout tonight. It’s a bit weird that he’s playing such a tiny venue, I don’t think people realise that it’s Johnny Borrell as in Razorlight Johnny Borrell.
But there’s only one J-Bo. Maybe people do realise it is him, and that’s why they’re not here.
Yeah but I used to like Razorlight Up All Night. If he’d just carried on with Razorlight, he would have done better than if he went solo. You never know, he might turn around.
Did you guys buy Borrell 1?
Brook: No I’ve not bought it, I listened to it online.
Well, at least you bought a ticket to the show. What did you think?
It’s alright, it’s not as good as his Razorlight stuff but I like Johnny Borrell, that’s why I’ve come.
How about you, Rachel?
Rachel: No I’ve not heard it.
Brook: She’s just come with me because I love him.
What are you expecting from the gig?
Just for him to look hot, really.
That’s it? Is this just a human zoo to you? Are you hoping he’ll take his shirt off?
I don’t think he will do but I’d love if that happened.
It’s a bit quiet isn’t it?
I don’t think it’s a bad thing because I’ll be able to get closer to the stage.
You might even be able to...
Touch him! My life would be complete
Do you think Johnny will make Borrell 2?
Brook: Well I have read that there will be more. I read an article saying that there might be Borrell 1, 2, 3, 4... I can’t remember what it actually said.
You’re in luck Brook. We wrote it, and there’s going to be six more Borrells. You’re in for a treat. Do you think Kirsten Dunst will take Johnny back now?
No. He’s gonna get with me.
The appeal of the “bad boy rocker” clearly didn’t die with Frankie Cocozza’s chance of ever leaving the clinic with a clean bill of sexual health. The place was full of middle aged women seeking respite from the mundanity of nightly TV dinners with their husband, all hoping for a Borrell's golden s̶h̶o̶w̶e̶r̶s̶ touch.
Have you got your copy of Borrell 1?
Sam: Probably, yeah. I love Johnny Borrell.
What do you mean, probably? What is it that you love about him so much?
I think it’s the attitude.
You’re right. He’s just so interesting. Have you heard the album?
Emily: Not yet, I came here on a whim but I like Razorlight.
You and everyone else. Isn’t Borrell 1 a bit of an egotistical name for an album?
Sam: Not at all, I think there should be as many as possible. I think there was a lot of pressure when he was in Razorlight to be the frontman and I think this album is for him, not for the fans but for himself.
Are you looking forward to the gig?
Joanne: I heard his solo album the other night. Not very commercial, I can understand why the critics bombed it.
So you didn’t buy a copy until last night?
No, I didn’t buy a copy at all. I Spotified it and thought, “Oh my god, I’ve got these tickets!” It’s not commercial but I suppose the musicality of it is there and there are elements from different genres. It’s interesting from that perspective. You won’t be up dancing to it.
Do you think that’s what Johnny was aiming for?
Yeah, as a person he’s meant to be a little bit of a show off isn’t he? Maybe he’s trying to show off his musicality almost in a classical kind of way.
Did you buy Borrell 1?
Thank fuck! What did you think?
Yeah, I like it. It’s different isn’t it? But there’s a couple of songs I like.
What did you think, Holly?
Holly: I’ve not listened to any of the songs.
Christine: She didn’t even know that he had a new band.
I don’t think many people did. Do you feel sorry for the rest of Razorlight?
I don’t know because I don’t know what happened.
Apparently one of the guys in the band is a Brazilian saxophonist.
Hey guys, can I talk to you about Johnny Borrell?
Lucy: Yeah but can I just tell you first, I’ve come along with a friend so I don’t know anything about him.
That’s okay, it’s not going to be a quiz. So are you the Borrell fan, Lisa?
Lisa: It’s our friend Liz, she’s got the album and she persuaded us all to come. I like swing music.
Do you think he might bust out some swing hits tonight? I’d like to see Johnny Borrell play something from the Jungle Book.
I like anything with live instruments, I love that kind of music.
Did any of you buy the album?
Liz: Yeah, I bought the album. There’s a few really good tracks on there.
What’s your favourite track?
I can’t remember the names of the songs.
Meanwhile, Borrell’s warm up act was starting. As you can see, things got pretty raucous.
And then, finally, the sweat-drenched Messiah took to the stage.
Like Jesus, but brought up on a diet of ripped off lyrics and guitar riffs, Johnny raised his hands to his followers.
It was like watching your friend’s CK One soaked older brother playing an unironic cover of “I Shot The Sheriff”; cringey and inappropriate, but also weirdly absorbing and mildly erotic. At one point, he pulled out a bizarre slow-mo version of “Man Gave Names To All The Animals" from Bob Dylan’s shitty Christian phase. Maybe it was his way of repenting for the infamous Dylan makes chips while I drink Champagne line. Maybe Borrell thinks he's Noah and the Ruby Lounge is his arc.
Borrell forced his band to wear blazers from lesser known county cricket clubs while he noshed off a microphone.
However deliberately outrageous this guy’s choice of headgear is, it’s no worse than anyone who’s ever worn an Obey cap.
In the final moments of the set, as I watched Borrell gurn through an autopilot rendition of “Golden Touch", it struck me the level of delusion this man has reached must have surpassed anything Pete Doherty felt from smoking his own blood in crack pipes made of mouse bones that he now sells in a shop for £400. He'll carry on dancing round like he's crushing Live 8, even when he's in a venue so small you can smell it every time the men's toilet door swings open.
Follow Phoebe on Twitter: @PhoebeJaneHurst
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