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The Courteeners, and How I Tried to Understand Why People Like the Band I Hate the Most

Liam Fray and his crew have built a career on indie rock siege mentality, and the more we hate them, the more popular they seem to get.

One of the great beauties of music, and of all art, is its subjectivity. It’s the innate thing that makes one person’s Dre another person's Des’ree and, unless you’re inside the head of the beholder, you can never truly understand why. We're all allowed to say what we think of said things - that freedom of opinion is what makes music exciting. And, for that reason I feel like it’s fair and fine to come out and say this: I’ve always thought the Courteeners were shite.

For me, they exist in a middle ground so bland it becomes offensive. Their post-Oasis indie-lad lite places them in a predictable void of boringness, a mundane chasm of dated reference points, a vapid gorge of style and swagger that even Topman shuns these days. It goes without saying, that the 136,000 joyless saps who signed the petition to have Kanye West removed from Glastonbury, would have preferred to hear something a bit like The Courteeners.

But, at the same time, they are insanely popular, and not in the contrived pop product way like James Bay. The band played to 25,000 people at Heaton Park in June, and became the first act to sell out 7 nights this December at the 3,500 capacity Manchester Apollo. They've also also headlined the 21,000 person Manchester Arena three times, as well as a double header at the 8,000 capacity Castlefield Bowl in Deansgate. I don't want to get all capacity crazy, but those are massive places.

In fact, you could call The Courteeners a British indie phenomenon - the type we thought died out with the NME’s price tag. Yet, despite all this, reviews of the band are known to contain lines like “he sounds like a chained dog labouring under the delusion that it is master of its domain” or “[They] sound like troglodytes on the rampage; if the garage fuzz of 'Kings of the New Road' is effective, it's only because it's so derivative.” So, what gives?

I decided to figure out what gives. What makes this band so attractive and relatable to their massive fanbase? What is it that every one of their fans totally gets, and I totally don't? For the last two weeks, I went full Courteeners-immersion. Like some sort of Camden answer to Mazher ‘Fake Sheikh’ Mahmood, I embraced their music, wore out their albums, spoke with their fans, trawled interviews, timelines, newsfeeds, message boards, the whole nineteen yards. I wanted to understand: why do so many people either love or hate The Courteeners?

* * *

Gill Scott, 31, Graphic Designer, London (Born in Greater Manchester)

(Image via ae.edge on Flickr)

Why do you love The Courteeners?
They remind me of home. From [lead singer Liam] Fray’s dulcet tones to lyrics about Withington, Stagecoach buses, and 42s.

What’s your favourite song?
I reckon “Bide Your Time” from the first album. Like many Courteeners songs, it is no doubt inspired by The Smiths. A jovial tempo with what are quite cruel lyrics. For girls I think this just adds to the appeal of Fray.

I’ve noticed there’s a North/South discrepancy in Courteeners fans. Why do you think this is?
I think Southerners don't generally get it. There are too many references to a Northern way of life, sarcasm, and Mancunian landmarks. A Courteeners gig in London compared to the Castlefield Bowl in Manchester (above) are two very different experiences. Almost like watching a different band.

Liam is not very nice about girls in some of his songs. Is this something you are bothered about?
Not really. If I wanted to listen to that I’d stick Michael Bublé on.

* * *

So it all starts with Liam, doesn’t it? Liam Fray.

Liam is The Courteeners’ frontman, its songwriter, its face, voice, and golden jockstrap. There’s three other guys in the band - Michael Campbell, Daniel “Conan” Moores, and Mark Cuppello, all from Rochdale, like Liam - that have been there since forming in 2006, but its only Liam you’ll ever see in interviews.

He’d probably roll his eyes at this, and it is so obvious, but it really doesn’t help that Liam is called Liam. Or that he’s from near Manchester, and for a long time had a haircut that could be described as Lennon-influenced. At a time when Oasis were trephining out Dig Out Your Soul, he was cast as the new Liam Gallagher, a prophet and saviour for the landfill generation.

Their NME cover in April 2008, supporting debut album St Jude, ran with the headline, "The New Manc Messiahs?" Inside the mag, the grandiose queries continued, the article head asking, “Is this the new Manchester idol we’re all looking for?”

In the interview - which, in retrospect, he says he was plied with drink for - Liam claimed that The Courteeners would be “the biggest band in the country.”

Taken in conjunction with some catty comments about indie-carnies The Enemy ("pricks”) and Hard-Fi's Richard Archer (a “dick”), a certain spotlight began to shine on him that he’s never been able to dim. The ‘Gob Almighty’ - another NME bequeathal - has always defined him and his band.

In the last few weeks, I’ve read and watched basically every Liam interview on the internet. Against expectations, I’ve found myself warming to him. He seems genuinely thoughtful. He’s confident, assured, but certainly not ostentatiously so. He was 22 or 23 when he said most of the stuff we associate with him, in a band that had been selling out 1,000 cap venues before their debut album was released. If he didn’t have an ego, I would have raised serious questions regarding the functionality of his manhood. And anyway, as Gill above intonates: lots of people didn’t mind his arrogance. It was a turn-on, even if it *might* have been a put-on.

In a Guardian interview from 2010 he says that “he never set out to be a rock star” and “I think I’m really good at sitting down with pen and paper. I write poetry.” He’s “more of a bedroom loner.” Instead of turning up to a party and getting lairy, he’d have an acoustic guitar out by 1am, doing "This Charming Man" in the bathroom to some drama students. Don’t get me wrong: these guys can be annoying, but they mostly mean well. These are the guys that volunteer to go and get another crate of beer at 7am, and when you asked how they paid they tell you not to worry about it. Yeah, they might vaguely try it on with your girlfriend while you’re in the bog, but it’s harmless.

* * *

Raj Bains, 23, Journalist, Yorkshire

What is your relationship with The Courteeners?
They're a band that I share a love for alongside a lot of my closest friends, so that always helps. They're not my favourite band, or the best band in the world, but that communal aspect to my enjoyment of them is a huge part of my fandom, I reckon.

How did you get into them?
It was a CD that got passed around my peers, St Jude was massive, and we were the right age at the right place in time.

What are they like live?
Their gigs often remind me a lot of going to see The Cribs live, actually. Everyone in there is 100% all for it, while others that are a bit more meh tend to stay away. The tabloid buzzword is likely "marmite".

* * *

So. The music. I listened to absolutely all of the music.

I’ll be honest, "You Overdid It Doll", one of their hits, is a top level indie banger, and sounds like nothing else The Courteeners have ever written. Disco womps chug everything along, and the keys sound a bit like Robert Miles’ "Children". It bangs good.

I’ve also found myself returning to "Are You In Love With A Notion" and "Marquee" from the Anna album. In the latter, Liam’s rumination of his failed relationship feels real, raw, and to this dyed-in-the-wool Southern softy with a penchant for sad songs, it does the business. I've found things to appreciate.

But the themes of these two songs are staunchly at odds with those littered on their 'big' debut album, St Jude, which largely subscribe to the age old rock and roll ideals of chivalry, and lyrics monotonously tow the line of 'girl likes boy in band, boy in band notes girl’s advances but arses around with his mates, boy in band bangs girl, probably'.

But you can’t ignore all that, because you can’t talk about The Courteeners without mentioning that debut album, especially not without mentioning “Not Nineteen Forever”. In the ears of the wider world, it is the band’s calling card and will have a second, third, fourth and 104th life on Radio X. The fact that it was used by Manchester United in the season they won their 20th title also helped solidify the band’s status as local rock and roll doyens. It's all this Salford-fratboy posturing that still haunts them.

Would I think different about this if I had grown up around Manchester, and had younger, primal experiences with them at an age where things become indelibly tangled within your musical chemistry, like Raj above did? Probably. Or, like graphic designer Gill Scott suggested above, does my lack of enthusiasm for it come from not getting the Northern references and overtones? Could the equal parts hate and love for The Courteeners’ music all just boil down to the historical spectre of the North/South divide?

* * *

Wrighty, 46, Aerospace engineer and co-founder of 'Courteeners We Stand' on Twitter and Facebook, Clitheroe, Lancs

Why haven’t The Courteeners caught on so much outside of Manchester?
The obvious answer is a lack of national Radio 1 airplay. They did get some back when Jo Whiley did the morning show, and Zane Lowe supported them, but some bands seem to land onto the A list and stay there.

I've seen 'our band, not theirs' written quite a lot on your Facebook page. Do people feel quite protective over them?
Yeah I've seen that, but I haven't noticed it really; not any more than any other fans of different bands. I've seen fans come and go over the years and some fans at the gigs now would of just left primary school when they first hit the venues, which is great. One thing for sure: they stir a passion inside you.

How many times have you seen them?
I've seen the Courteeners 105 times, but some of those were Liam Fray solo gigs. Highlights (and there have been a lot) include Blackburn Cellar Bar 2007: that was a local gig for me and one of the first times I'd seen them. Salford Lads Club in 2010. I'm also a big Smiths fan and Liam played a solo show upstairs. Being in that building was special and an intimate gig as well… I’ve also seen them in Rome, Barcelona and Mallorca.

* * *

You read the replies of someone like Wrighty, a man who's spent over 100 nights of his adult life following a band like The Courteeners, and you can’t help but wonder what, if any, right you have to make judgements. But it returns to subjectivity, and our right to have an opinion. After my two weeks of immersion, I don’t think The Courteeners are utter shite anymore. I do like some of their music, and would contest antiquated ideas regarding the breadth of Liam’s swagger, but I still can’t find much to wholeheartedly recommend. For me, they are trapped in a middle ground surrounded by a set of already unimaginative pillars. They aren't ravey enough to pull a Kasabian crowd, not subtle enough to compare to the Arctic Monkeys, not universal like Oasis, and too vaguely trendy to ever land in your mum’s CD rack next to Snow Patrol.

This is likely why they’ve never gone supernova outside of their home counties. But they do have this exceptionally loyal fanbase - the IRL type that will take on the clothes, live by the lyrics, and march to the gigs in droves. The type we don’t really see anymore, that would go to war for their band. I reckon it’s that Us Vs Them mentality, which has been fueled by a perceived lack of support from the BBC and NME, that has made The Courteeners as popular as they are. That indie era might have died away all by itself, but the idea that it was or is under attack is what unites a following under a band like this. The Courteeners are their band, not ours, and maybe they like it that way. Liam Fray and his crew have built a career on indie rock siege mentality, and the more we hate them, the more popular they seem to get.

Follow David on Twitter.