The Seldom Seen Kid album will go down as a moment. A moment when critical acclaim and the eyes of the world found them. Their journey from Asleep in the Back through Leaders of the Free World was full of ups and downs and anyone listening since day one will know they always have the songs. The question was never about whether they could deliver, they always could, and they always had people by the ears and the hearts, they carried on despite, and sometimes fuelled by what was happening to them.
A lot of the album was written while the band had no record deal, after the collapse of V2. They were creating without knowing whether any of it would ever be heard outside of the elbow bubble. Guy Garvey said in 2009, “when we were doing the initial bit of writing for this record, we kind of knew our record deal was at an end and we didn’t have a new one. We didn’t know how we were going to sort out all the legal stuff”
The album contains reactions to love, death and friendship and there is as always a beautiful sense of place in the songs featured.
Bands sometimes sell out a little and depart from their core ideas to have the sort of success elbow had with Seldom. Elbow never did, they wrote here about the same things they were writing about in their debut, their debut that was lest we forget, nominated for a Mercury music award. They won that award for this album, and never lost what was important to them.
The Seldom Seen Kid is the result of a band with their backs to the wall, again, and it is creation that comes with cost.
Starlings is a brave step for elbow to take as an opening track. The song is what happens to you when love finds you. The opening notes could literally be a heartbeat. You’re ambling through the world; everything is nice and pleasant enough and then BAM! Trumpets invade your head and Guy Garvey writes the truest words you have ever heard.
“You are the only thing in any room you’re ever in”, followed by “I’m stubborn selfish and too old” because dear listener, northerners cannot be too positive without the self-deprecating putdown to balance things out. The singer reminds the muse, that he is indeed a “horse that good for glue and nothing else” but be in no doubt the love that is promised will be true, real and for as long as he is lucky enough to stay in that place. Starlings seems to embrace a contrast, between one person who thinks he’s too old and not capable of expressing his love without borrowing from others, before he actually does so beautifully when the object of his love is present. Love can turn even the ruggedly monosyllabic into wobbly Shakespearean poets.
Bones of You continues along the same lines, being in love, feeling happiness and being with someone but unlike the opener, these feelings are in the past and not the present. The song has Guy’s beautiful word soup and some very tasty sounds too. It sounds pacey because the character in the song is “charging around with a juggernaut brow” and there is an immediacy to it. It feels as though someone is coming out of an office on a deadline with no time for lunch, someone who suddenly has been transported back to his past thanks to music that he hears, “when out of a doorway the tentacles stretch of a song that I know”.
The lyrics get almost frantic as the character debates, “Do I have time? A man of my calibre”, resisting the reconnection he is having with the memories of people and places. The lyrics tumble out as quickly as they can be sung, and the delivery matches the music we hear. The crashes of sound, the musical hustle and bustle before the almost choir like singing. We hear the conflict the character feels. The Abbey Road performance features the BBC choir and the words they angelically deliver are gibberish, described by Guy Garvey as “absolute hogwash”.
Anyone needing resolution to this Mancunian struggle between power lunch and power ballads will be disappointed. We only know that the character remembers, we never find out what they do with the memory, probably nothing.
Two songs into the album and two characters have experienced the presence of love, as an invading force, catching characters unaware or feeling downright unwelcome.
Love does not feel like an uninvited guest Mirrorball. The opening notes dance into your mind as flickers of light find spaces on the walls and the floors below a mirror ball. The song is from the point of view of someone experiencing the first flush of love, walking through town at dawn and experiencing the beauty in everything; sounds of footsteps, the sun coming up, the start of a brand new day and bliss “all down to you, dear, everything has changed”. Contrast this with the person that walked into town in Forget Myself from Leaders of the Free World. There we found a person looking for a plot to bury a broken heart, getting lost in the hustle and bustle of a city, cradling him after heartbreak. That character was about forgetting himself whereas the character in Mirrorball wants to remember everything and embrace every detail. The city is not being asked to shield this time, every sight and sound feels like it is congratulating him on the direction his life has taken.
“I was looking for someone to complete me, not anymore dear, everything has changed.”
Love is a universal truth, and elbow know exactly how to tap into the vein both musically and lyrically. The strings swell and sweep in at exactly the right time and Guy Garvey’s lines roll along effortlessly whilst painting vivid pictures in our minds. We have all known what it is like to look into someone’s eyes and feel the only ones in existence at any given moment. If we are very lucky, we know what it’s like to feel like the street is our stage, feel like the sirens are violins and to be kissed “like we invented it”.
The unabashed positivity of some of the music and lyrics in the opening songs can set down a challenge for the listener. elbow might be seeing how far they can push the cliché of romance before it becomes unbearably sweet. Well, being that this is elbow we are talking about, they do prick their own bubble before anyone gets too sick, this could also explain why a lot of the songs, even the ones edging towards romance, come with deep, moody, tense music.
Grounds For Divorce is a sit up and take notice track. It is the moment this elbow album goes up a gear. It has everything you want from an elbow song, lyrics that wind around your ears, stompy call and response which is almost mantra like and something John Lennon would have been proud of in his Amsterdam bed. This is elbow doing anger, Guy writing angry lyrics, as a reaction to life not going well. In later interviews Garvey suggested that this was written when his relationship was hitting a rough patch. The song is the musical representation of love and friendship, two foundations for this band, taking a massive blow.
The bar mentioned as the “hole…. down which I can’t help but fall” is The Temple in Manchester, a bar converted from underground Victorian era toilets. It is a nod to a place Guy and the band knew very well but it could be any bar, we have all sat somewhere with a drink and pondered life’s questions.
The sounds paint vivid pictures in your mind, you can hear and almost see someone getting angrier and angrier, pacing the room, and wanting to smash things up before leaving town for a while. The “there’s a hole in my neighbourhood” comes in and it is as if the doors burst wide open and the dirty guitars and industrial drums crash through with purpose like a drunk uncle heading for the buffet. In live performances the boys really play up the lead into that part until it is Jaws-like in both sound and tension. Live, at Abbey Road or Jodrell Bank for example, the drums and the notes keep going and when you’re in the crowd listening live you want it to build and build and build some more. The song erupts when Mark Potter’s guitar comes back with that riff, Pete Turner’s bass is mean and Jupp’s beats a path for Guy Garvey’s vocal. Grounds For Divorce is blues. It is tense and claustrophobic to the point of exploding.
Live From Abbey Road features a brilliant performance of this song and the song, Mark Potter’s guitars pack more of a punch, that riff is played by guitar first time round and then with the might of the orchestra when it comes round again. The build-up of tension and eventual burst of sound in the last minute or so just needs to be seen and heard. Even the band cannot help but smile. It will give you tingles for days.
An Audience With The Pope sounds brilliantly gloomy, musically it’s a swim through treacle because everything sounds slow and laboured and the lyric is Guy sounding as sad and reflective as we’ve heard him so far. Lyrically the song is about a girl that has the power over a boy, a boy who might well be angry at the one sided nature of things but who forgets his anger in an instant the minute the girl calls. There is also a bit of religious guilt in here too, because the good things, sex in this case, often come with guilt. Guy Garvey is playing with religion and the balance of joy and guilt, as so many writers have before him.
The clouds of temptation and frustration eventually part and we enjoy the wide-open spaces of Weather to Fly. The song is about the band, about their friendship, their dreams, and their plans.
The song is perfect in capturing exactly what friendship means, and musically it just floats like a breath of fresh air. Once again though elbow are not re-inventing their wheel, they have always written about the personal, they’ve done so on Scattered Black and Whites and Puncture Repair for example – they are going to places they are comfortable writing about and they once again make it look effortless.
Live At Abbey Road features a stunning version of this, the strings take the whole song up a level and Mark harmonises with Guy’s lead vocal. In that studio, on that day, they give a performance that just lets us shut our eyes and go somewhere else, their adventure is our escape and watching the performance, you can tell they know how special that moment is.
The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver sweeps in majestically and we are straight into another character story of someone who works in an industry they are supposed to like but they feel isolated doing it. Guy himself has spoken about it being literally about a tower crane driver and being well paid on one hand but completely cut off from the world, high up and on their own on the other. There are parallels here too with fame and celebrity. Often those that are up on a stage “search for a face that I know”, they are apparently doing a dream job but hate it and feeling themselves die inside every day; “it’s a joke, a fix, a lie”. Interestingly, John Lennon’s stepsister Julia Baird once told of how John used to peak at the audience and used to search for his family’s faces before a concert in the early performances of The Beatles. Julia felt that he was always nervous until he spotted them and once he did he could go and be the pop star.
Speaking in 2009, Guy said that this song was the first one they knew would be going on the album, and despite the situation with their record label, Tower Crane is “the only tune on the record, I’m happy to say, where maybe the frustrations of that time came out musically and lyrically”.
The song follows themes set in Bones Of You where the high powered business man crushed by time is brought to a standstill by a memory. The tower crane driver is miles up high in the city looking down at those types and is probably also rewarded for his work, it is costing him something too.
As a cautionary tale for those pursuing fame, or as a worker watching the world, Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver is a stand out on this album and elbow’s live catalogue as well but the symphonic beauty of the Abbey Road performance needs to be appreciated. Listen to and watch that performance to see the band capture everything they were aiming for in the album track. The album track is beautiful and they stretched an elastic band around the moon in terms of what they pulled off musically in their studio, but on the Abbey Road session the song got the lavish treatment it deserved.
Everything about this performance is epic and you won’t be able to listen to the power and the beauty of the final two minutes without feeling the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
After the majesty and splendour of Tower Crane, in true elbow fashion, we come back down to earth with a humorous bump. Guy Garvey and Richard Hawley duet on a song about a fixed horse race, because of course they do. This wonderous little ditty is the result of both men appearing in America and becoming friends, the line about working together is often spoken when two musicians meet but in this case it was followed up and The Fix is the fruit of those labours. As a side note, the gig Richard and Guy were both performing at was with American singer songwriter Frank Black / Black Francis of Pixies fame. A radio interview Guy Garvey conducted with him at this point, would sow the seeds of a song that would appear on an elbow album just under a decade later.
Richard Hawley’s voice is like velvet on every line he sings and there’s this creepy haunted almost Specials’ Ghost Town vibe to the music at points and lyrically the song is delicious.
The band and Hawley reconvene on the Abbey road session with BBC orchestra and the choir behind them. The music will intrigue you, there is more body to the song and here Richard Hawley steals the show with a filthy dirty guitar solo.
With all of the jockey’s and all of the morally corrupt men taken care of, next, elbow spin us another sad tale about a fragile life, for Some Riot. This song is an outstanding piece of work and something that may create eye water when you hear it or see it performed. The friend in question was rumoured to be the owner of The Temple (also discussed in Grounds For Divorce), Scott Alexander but anyone listening to the song will have their own friend that they see described in the beautiful lyrics.
Guy sings about someone who “grows his very own brambles”, a friend who is creating issues that he is wrapped up in and cocooning away from everyone.
The booze turning a “tall gentle boy to a terrible totem” part may hit home. The change in a person may well be familiar to those who listen, as will the idea that as soon as the friend drinks everything is out there for all to see. The friend in the song shows it all. All the behaviour, all the truths all the pain and all the hurt. If you identify this song with anyone personally, whether they be a father, brother, significant other, you know what the transformation from gentle to terror is like and the questions those around ask of themselves when it happens.
Without question, elbow transcend pop music on Some Riot. It feels like therapy just to listen to it. Good songs and good songwriters write things that speak to the audience, there is an agreement made between musicians and fans about the journey they will go on together. Great songs and great songwriters make that journey personal, for them possibly, but mostly for those that are listening. On Some Riot it feels like there is a genuinely shared experience, we feel the concern, the emotion and the heartbreak together.
To say the song benefits from the BBC orchestra on the Abbey Road version is like saying Shakespeare was alright writing romantic poetry. All the emotions stirred in the studio version are doubled with the orchestra and choir. You have only to close your eyes and you’ll be taken away. About half the song is Guy singing and half the song is orchestra and choir, the one two punch of the story and the music is devasting.
“When will my friend start singing again?”
It stands to reason that the only song that can possibly follow the heart-wrenching Some Riot is the happiest bounciest song elbow have ever recorded. One Day Like This is no longer an elbow song, it’s a hymn. The band created it, but the song belongs to the people. That is not hyperbole either, the nation has taken that song to their hearts. It has been played to open events, close events, it has soundtracked weddings and funerals. It was long ago chiselled on to the British musical mountain for posterity alongside Don’t Look Back in Anger and Your Song and elbow will probably never again play a live concert where it isn’t played as the finale.
Some will say that they never need to hear the song again and in truth it was everywhere, but it is glorious in unapologetic happiness. Throughout the album there is a tense feeling even in the brightness. The album is full of characters being crushed by what is happening to them or their friends, when they manage to find space it’s a brief break from whatever is suffocating them. This isn’t the case on One Day Like This, it’s happiness and positivity with no and then!
The outright, cup runneth over positivity in this Ivor Novello winning song might be down to the fact that, unlike other work that was done with their label future unknown, One Day Like This was done with the knowledge the band had a deal secured with Fiction. People would eventually get to hear The Seldom Seen Kid and the relief about that bursts out in music. For all the Let It Be nods it benefits from simplicity; today feels like a good day.
The album ends with a touching tribute to Bryan Glancy, close friend of the band and someone who passed away in January of 2006. Friend of Ours is a beautiful sentiment to the seldom seen kid and quite a way for elbow to end became a blockbuster of an album.
In And Finally fashion, the tracks We’re Away and Hotel Istanbul need to be celebrated. The first is a smoky, end of the night bar effort that just drips with soul and blues, a remarkable mood is created in just under two minutes.
Hotel Istanbul wasn’t an album track must have been very close to being one. In songs like Starlings and Mirrorball the love story seems to have a brand new tint, therefore it’s possible that the drunken tale of the night before and the brilliant rambling the song contains, didn’t mesh with the overall tone.
Good luck finding a song amongst the starting eleven to bench to make room for Hotel Istanbul but the song is strong enough. Seldom could have been one track longer and this could have been a first team starter.
“Hotel Istanbul and I was notifying strangers that my pugilistic flare could mean a consequential danger but the maitre’d was deft and I was parted from my breath His way of asking me to leave it was a very sorry scene. Pissed, I just insist that no one cares”
It was January 2009 when elbow went to Abbey Road to play the album in full in the world-famous studio. As brilliant and emphatic as this performance is, the thing that takes your breath away is the times you catch the boys glancing at each other with grins on their faces. Each glance and smile tells a story of its own.
Luckily for us, a story they are continuing to tell.
Live at Abbey Road (2009) is available to hear on BBC Radio 2 in November as part of Radio 2 In Concert at 50. Listen on Radio Two and BBC Sounds.
It is the document of a band elevating their creation to epic heights with the help of the BBC concert orchestra and Chantage, Radio 3’s Choir of the Year. Listen to the nuances the instruments and the voices find. The album’s musical MacGyvering and ingenuity of guitar notes through broken speakers, radiator scrapes and soundalike oboes is replaced by orchestral soundscapes filled with the genuine articles.
Words © Simon Andrew Moult / Moultymedia 2020. Artwork used for illustrative purposes only, via fair use. This article discusses The Seldom Seen Kid (Fiction, 2008) and The Seldom Seen Kid Live at Abbey Road (Fiction, 2009).