The Definitive History of Landfill Indie in Seven Songs, Narrated by Johnny Borrell
"The Kooks were the missing link between Razorlight and McFly."
Like a stinking dinosaur with an atrophied leg, guitar music stumbles slowly forward. As kids pray at rap’s grand altar and lose their minds at pan-European EDM uber-festivals, it heaves and wheezes. That’s not to say people aren’t interested in hearing music that’s been made with a guitar anymore, because they are. Yet in an era where Snapchat, sportswear and hoverboards reign supreme, it’s difficult not to feel like the nuclear family of guitar, drums, and bass is a little like a bewildered and wrinkled pensioner, lost and confused on the way back from the shops, trying to make sense of the world.
It hasn’t always been this way, of course. For years, guitar music triumphed. Rock blew a hole in the 50s, then The Beatles and the Rolling Stones tap-danced into view in the 60s. From there, psych and surf exploded. Then there was prog and punk. Morrissey and his abattoirs of sadness strolled into view in the 80s, and Blur and Oasis wrapped things up in the 90s. But all this lead to the tail-end: the 2000s. And what went on during that generation is arguably what sent guitar music to its watery death.
What started as the Strokes spearheading a magnificent renaissance in the idea of “the band” quickly descended into the pits of what became known as “Landfill Indie”. As a genre, the name is self-explanatory. A&Rs had seen the success of the Strokes and with a sizeable wedge of money left over from an era where people still bought CDs, they went about signing enough shit indie music to overfill a rotting landfill, trampolining supply way over the heads of demand. By the end, indie music was practically buried underneath forlorn copies of the NME, Topman branded winklepickers, and flyers for an all ages night in Vauxhall.
From The Wombats and The Fratellis to One Night Only and The Ting Tings, the gamut of landfill indie runs long and deep. Yet if there was one figure who came to symbolise this decline, one pantomime villain into whom the great British public – or at least the media - projected all their self-loathing and contempt, it was Johnny Borrell: the white-trousered, turbo-mouthed singer of Razorlight.
So, with his latest record now out (Johnny Borrell & Zazou's The Atlantic Culture), who better to help us chart the story of the rise and fall of early 2000s guitar music then, eh? We chose seven songs that path indie rock's road to shithouse destruction, and we asked Johnny Borrell to narrate our journey. Here's how it went down.
1. YEAH YEAH YEAHS - "BANG (LIVE AT TRASH)"
Okay, so we're starting way back in 2001, before landfill indie had really come to exist.
JB: The first thing you ever heard about The Strokes was people writing about them. Then you saw the pictures – and only then did you actually hear some music. It always felt like a package. They obviously looked really cool and photogenic, but every song was basically "American Girl" by Tom Petty with an overdriven vocal. With the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, you heard the music first.
Didn’t the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have a fair bit of hype behind them as well though?
Not in the very early days. The song above was still just the Master EP, which is why we couldn’t even find an official video. But I was at this gig, and it was so fucking raw and energetic, like nothing we’d seen over here. The show wasn’t even that full, but it felt like one of those quotes about the Velvet Underground, where everyone there immediately went off and formed a band.
We’d seen the whole Pulp and Oasis thing die off, and pretty much given up on the entire idea of a band ever doing anything exciting again. Guitar music meant stuff like Cast and Travis. It was fucking dire, and it had become embarrassing to even tell people you played in a band. Then this lot came along, and it was like they were mixing all the best bits of Thee Headcoats and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – it’s so wayward and unpredictable.
2. THE LIBERTINES - "WHAT BECAME OF THE LIKELY LADS"
So here's the second song of our journey. Where does this plot on the descent into landfill indie?
Couldn’t we have done one of the songs from when The Libertines were genuinely brilliant?
Like “What A Waster” or “Death On The Stairs”? That was one of the great songs of this whole decade – it has those sharp guitar hooks, and beautiful narrative songwriting. It’s fantastic. But the difference between that and what we just listened to is pretty stark.
Well, I think with that second album, their label were just desperate to capitalise on the initial success, and get anything at all out of them. So, they hashed together a lot of the songs that didn’t make the first record, and dredged up some even older stuff. I remember listening to demos of "Music When The Lights Go Out" from, like, 1999 – and honestly, they were better than what ended up on the album.
I remember The Libertines being pretty incredible in secret shows upstairs at the Camden Barfly for 300 people. Do you think they ever made sense on big corporate rock stages?
They were totally unbeatable in those early shows – or, especially the first twenty minutes of those early shows, before the coke wore off. The Libertines were a massive coke band, and very, very actively encouraged in that by their A&R. Now, one usually thinks of coke bands as totally overblown pomp, right? So, a band like The Libertines, back in the day, would have been a speed band.
The history of recent British music could have been very different if Pete and Carl had gotten into amphetamines instead of gak. But, by the point of this video, it feels like they are barely even a band. They’d been turned into this self-referential tabloid pantomime, where every song was about themselves. It was almost a piece of performance art – Marina Abramovic meets Phil and Grant Mitchell off Eastenders. I guess that progression is important when talking about the descent into landfill indie.
3. RAZORLIGHT - "BEFORE I FALL TO PIECES"
JB: Yeah. So here’s where we totally fucked it up for everyone. I think you can kind of say that in 2006, at the start of this video, music was in quite an interesting place. Then three-and-a-half minutes later it's fucked.
How do you feel about that, looking back?
Look, Razorlight started as a really energetic, fun band. We had a drum ‘n’ bass obsessed maniac named Christian on drums, and we played a lot of squat parties at 3am. But, being in the industry changes a band by definition. After the first album, what were we meant to do – continue with some faux-idealisation of something gritty, aggressive and cool? I found that whole thing completely fucking bogus. Christian left, Andy joined, and we made what I still consider to be a really quality pop-rock album.
How does that tie in with landfill indie?
Well, I don’t think this is strictly “Landfill”, as it came to be understood. This is quite a good pop song – it’s got strong hooks, and a drumbeat lifted directly off "Walk Like An Egyptian" by The Bangles. But, I think the second Razorlight album definitely opened the way for a flood of mediocrity in UK music. In my defence, though, people think of Razorlight as some kind of Johnny Borrell solo project, but it was always collaborative. I rate the drummer Andy Burrows. He was a great drummer with a melodic ear – but if you want to figure out who was taking Razorlight in which direction, then maybe have a listen to what we’re each doing now. I’m playing psychedelic blues-tango, and his stuff is so middle of the road it’s got more white lines than Liam Gallagher in 1997.
Ouch! One last question about this song: Is the bit in the video where Guy Pearce’s tooth falls out a direct reference to the Freudian dream-symbolism where losing your teeth stands for fear of sexual inadequacy?
Ha! I think the entire trajectory of Razorlight might be a Freudian illumination of male sexual insecurity. But there is some subversion in this video of the entire ridiculous idea of what a “big rock band” is meant to be.
4. THE KOOKS - "SHE MOVES IN HER OWN WAY"
JB: Someone in the industry once told me that the way Razorlight were perceived in the biz was exactly halfway between The Clash and Busted – and, with some chagrin, I kind of had to go yeah, alright, fair enough. But using that same scale, I think The Kooks were probably the missing link between Razorlight and McFly.
Something has definitely changed in the period between that early Yeah Yeah Yeahs video and the birth of the Kooks.
Yeah. I don’t know if we’ve quite landed in proper 'landfill' yet, but we’re definitely falling fast. I think there are two differences here – one is that musically, it’s utterly formulaic [compared to earlier modern indie tracks]. At exactly 0:38 you get that “Uh oh” chorus – and you know this is a product that has been specifically conceived and designed for daytime radio. And the band seem completely cool with that.
The other thing is that with The Libertines, and even second-album Razorlight, there’s a feeling that there’s a band playing, and you’re being let into this special thing they’re doing. With this, there’s a different feeling – it’s much more a re-packaging of banal, everyday life with a whistle-able melody.
On their Wikipedia page it says The Kooks were at the BRIT School and met while shopping for hats in Primark.
Sounds about right. I mean, good luck to them – this song’s so inoffensive I feel bad for slagging them off back in the day. But the problem is never with the band, it’s with the industry around it. You can just see the label, the radio plugger, and the radio bosses licking their lips and saying things like, “This is the right record for right now.”
5. THE ORDINARY BOYS - "BOYS WILL BE BOYS"
JB: This lot often get forgotten – and they are pretty forgettable. But this is very pure landfill indie, in the sense of, “Pick a genre like Ska, and produce product by numbers”. I don’t think the impact of Preston going on Celebrity Big Brother can be underestimated, either. I think that was what tied supposedly “real” music with the worst trash of celebrity culture.
I’d forgotten all about that.
Exactly. This was so of its time – there was this new type of celebrity emerging. It was different than Liam going out with Patsy Kensit, or even Pete and Kate Moss. Obviously, now it’s totally normal for people to invite total access into their lives. But, back then it felt new, and the Preston soap opera was how it intruded into the music world. As a musician, the only satisfaction was that the more famous he got for being famous, the less the Ordinary Boys mattered as a band. Also, he committed the unforgivable sin of storming off Never Mind the Buzzcocks. At least I had the good grace to sit there and take the ribbing I deserved. These guys contributed to landfill indie by devaluing music with the worst of celebrity bullshit. From 2006 the slide was fast and hard.
6. THE VIEW - "SAME JEANS"
JB: It does seem a bit of a shame to pick on this lot – they seem like nice guys. But this video does show the absolute ruthless exploitation of the industry. How old are these kids? 16, 17? I mean, they’ve obviously got some kind of talent; they just haven’t been given those crucial five years to figure out what they want to say.
I think this is significant, actually. This whole period was kind of important for bands, but it was a fucking revolution for A&R. Back in the day, A&R meant going out to gigs and watching bands, but in this era, it became sitting at your computer trawling Myspace, then Facebook and Youtube, for the freshest, youngest thing going. Bands weren’t allowed to develop on their own before they were swept up in the machine.
I guess nothing in this era can even be considered without taking in the rise of social media, and the decline of record sales.
Exactly. And it wasn’t just the labels. For instance, once upon a time there used to be an actual magazine called the NME. And I don’t want to be too hard on NME, they’ve been pretty good to me – every time I said something outrageous to sell records, they’d print it to sell copies. Then they’d usually slag me off for it two weeks later in order to sell more copies, but that was just the pact we made.
But, what we all witnessed over this era was many magazines and radio programmers switching from having an actual editorial perspective, to being run as focus groups for companies to shift products to 16-24 year olds. And I mean that very literally: groups of kids in a room being played demos to see which they liked most, in order to boost advertising from Motorola or whatever.
I’m not saying that we need a bunch of self-appointed musos instructing the vulgar masses about what’s good. But there needs to be some sort of editorial integrity, right? The balance seemed to go out of whack in this era, and you can see the result in all the magazines folding, and Radio 1 losing millions of listeners. To me, that’s what “landfill” meant. The airwaves just became a dump that needed to be filled with product that looked a bit like other product that had done okay.
Very true. Okay, now for our final song. The absolute epitome of trite landfill indie music...
7. KINGS OF LEON - "SEX ON FIRE"
JB: This song is basically the apex, death and afterlife of landfill indie all in one go. And, I’m actually going to demand we listen to another song right now. Can you pull up "Dakota" by the Stereophonics? Ok. When do the main vocals come in?
And how about on "Sex is on Fire"?
And when does the chorus drop?
53 seconds, and, fuck, it is actually 53 seconds on the other one too.
Right? It’s in the same key, at the same tempo; it’s the same macho, bloke mumbling in the verse, and a big chorus with loads of extended vowel sounds.
That's unbelievable. Although, I guess bands nicking shit from other bands is hardly anything new.
Of course not – everything I’ve nicked, I know exactly where it’s from. It’s just with this, it’s like we’ve been on this whole journey, and suddenly we’re back in the late 1990s with the Stereophonics song-formula. And look, the Stereophonics are really good at what they do, and they’ve never claimed to be anything else. But once your formula is that…well, we’re in Stadium Landfill territory.
So, Kings of Leon are the band that tell the whole story of landfill indie then?
Maybe that’s right. Their second record, The Bucket, was so fucking good. I loved that album. It was by far the best record of whatever year it came out. So, to hear them do this was just, well… ughh.
So I guess after this everyone stopped pretending to be punk and started pretending to be folk musicians?
Yeah, I guess then the era of Mumford & Sons started or whatever.
Or, “Razorlight with Banjos”, as they were also known.
Razorlight with Banjos? Ouch.
The Atlantic Culture by Johnny Borrell & Zazou is out now.