The Bluetones - Never Going Nowhere
A few years ago there was a trend of writing blogs reviewing every song by a particular artist, of which Matthew Perpetua’s Pop Songs 07-08 on R.E.M. was probably the most successful. I decided to do one on The Bluetones. This was a big mistake. I guess this is the point at which I officially say that I have abandoned it. I’m most sad about this because I never got to write about the final, most important song, so I’m doing it now instead.
First, a quick career overview. The Bluetones emerged in 1995, towards the tail-end of Britpop as far as uncovering new bands went. At that stage their main obvious sonic reference point was The Stone Roses, although The Bluetones had more emphasis on melody, less on beats, less on attitude and more on emotion. They had a couple of minor hits with self-referencing singles “Are You Blue or Are You Blind?” and “Bluetonic”, but their big breakthrough was when the sunny jangle of “Slight Return” got to #2 in early 1996, behind Babylon Zoo’s infamous “Spaceman”. “Slight Return” remains a staple of UK alternative radio stations to this day, The Bluetones’ one lasting legacy.
First album Expecting to Fly, seemingly entirely consisting of songs about relationships ending, immediately followed. It spent a week at #1, right in the middle of what would otherwise have been a ten week stay for Oasis’ Britpop chart colossus (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?. The band re-released the album and played shows playing Expecting to Fly it in its entirety a few years ago. It very clearly still has a nostalgic place in a the hearts of a certain type of music fan of a certain era, though it’s not my favourite album of theirs.
Nothing else in their career caught on in the same way. Each of the next three albums (1998’s harder rocking Return to the Last Chance Saloon, 2000’s genre-exploring melodic tour de force Science & Nature, 2003’s nu-wavey Luxembourg) saw a significant downsizing of fanbase. Though in those times before digital singles, and with a deserved reputation for high quality B-sides, they still managed to maintain an unbroken run of top 40 singles up to 2003.
I called my blog ‘Paraguay and Laos’ in wry reference to a quote from comedian Armando Iannucci in 2001:
I terrified myself the other day by trying to write down a list of all the things that we don’t actually need. Things that if they didn’t exist, no one would miss them. Basically I’m talking about the Daily Express, or the hovercraft - just get rid of it. The novels of Wilbur Smith, badminton, cummerbunds, the song ‘Flash Bang Wallop, What a picture’, the music of the Bluetones, the countries Chad, Paraguay and Laos. Unnecessary.
My choice and love of them was admittedly influenced by the fact that they were my first ever favourite band who really felt like mine, a product largely of coincidence. I would still argue, though, that the quote is unfair, that at their best they made great songs and albums which had little in common with the rest of Britpop beyond timing and basic set up. The view that they were an irrelevance and not worth discussing went way beyond that one quote though. The best oeuvreblogs ended up with associated communities of people interested in discussing all of the songs in question. My quality of writing may not have helped but I came to think that I was striking out alone with no hope of such a blossoming regardless. Even the band’s remaining fan communities seemed to think it a bizarre endeavour. It was a bit much of an indulgence, and one which I wasn’t up to sustaining.
The Bluetones’ status was best confirmed for me by an ILX poll called Worst of these Mid-Late ’90s UK bands. It included 19 bands; 123 votes were cast. Almost every band, even those without a hit to their name like Longpigs and 3 Colours Red, got at least two votes. There was one lone zero. No one else even cared enough about The Bluetones to hate them.
One thing that The Bluetones did have, though, was the best band break-up song ever.
It was on fourth album Luxembourg, maybe named after the pirate radio station, maybe an oblique reference to that same Iannucci quote. Luxembourg didn’t exactly sound like The Strokes or like The Ramones but you could tell that they were trying to position themselves in similar territory, possibly in a futile attempt to match the alternative zeitgeist of the time. As a Bluetones album its attempt bubblegum punk was distinctly cuddlier than either of the aforementioned bands, and didn’t always work, but it was wall-to-wall choppy hard guitar sounds.
In that context the restrained clarity of the verses to “Never Going Nowhere” comes as a stark contrast. And Mark Morriss is back to singing songs of heartbreak:
Some words can cut you like the sharpest blade
I don’t love you any more, I don’t love you any more
Nothing’s different, but something has changed
I don’t love you any more, I don’t love you any more
Stark, and sad. An economy of words to describe having your heart torn apart by someone saying to you ‘I don’t love you any more’. That’s not quite it, though.
As I speak these words I can’t believe what I’m saying, no no
I don’t love you any more
He’s actually saying these things himself! The twist makes it all the more painful, an inner turmoil laid bare. If someone else says that you might think that there’s some tiny chance of persuading them otherwise, but if you’ve got to the point of saying it yourself through the pain you must be quite certain that this is the end. Then we get towards the chorus and the guitars start clanging and sparking up a striking chorus which sounds defiant, urgent, with a determination to go down in a blaze of glory. It begins still in ambiguous, presumed romantic territory:
Time has flown but all along you’ve always known
Never going nowhere
but then things take a very different and furious turn:
Act your age
Turn the page
Leave the stage
It’s time to move on
And me and you, how high we flew
We always knew it’s never going nowhere
Leave the stage! All pretence falls away. This is a song about a relationship, but it’s transparently one about a relationship with a band and with an audience. One which the band were trying to tear themselves away from, making the argument that for all that they’d done, it was never going to amount to anything. But while the obvious reading of the ungrammatical double negative is as slang, as an inevitability that they were doomed from the start, it also introduces just a hint of uncertainty at the last. The literal reading still sits there as well, a possibility that maybe it wasn’t all futile, but it still has to end anyway.
What follows is probably the most heartbreaking part of the song - the sections with electronic burbling, a sad and silly whistling synth melody and a flat, deadened repetition of ‘na na na na na na’. It sounds like a weird departure, but there is a significance which eventually hit me hard.
The Bluetones ended every show I ever saw them play with a song called “If…”, a calling card song about about being in a band that features a joyful coda of ‘na na na na na’. Live, it invariably induced communal singing and jumping. Among their fans (including one who based his internet identity at the age of 15 on the coincidence of its title matching his own initials), “If…” is widely even more highly regarded than “Slight Return” or “Bluetonic”.
When in “If…” Mark sung ‘It’s all that I can do to sing these stupid songs to you’ it was a joke. In “Never Going Nowhere” the band don’t even need words because the parody of the happiest moment of “If…”, those same wordless syllables with the life sucked right out of them, speaks loudly and clearly. I don’t love you any more.
In August 2003 “Never Going Nowhere” was released as a single. No one cared outside of a still-dwindling fan base. With tragicomic accuracy the song continued their unbroken run of singles reaching the UK top 40… by getting to #40. It was the band’s last ever hit.
The Bluetones didn’t break up in 2003. They carried on right through to 2011, past the point when just about all of their peers had had break-ups and frequently past their reunions, too. They released two more albums, one dull (The Bluetones, 2006) and one really good (A New Athens, 2010). I saw them many more times before their final London shows in October. They even played “Never Going Nowhere”, now my favourite song of theirs, each time I saw them, but it always gave me a gnawing feeling that things were not right. Their career from that song onwards felt like a weird ghost career. Everything that they did felt somehow invalidated by the fact that they had already come to this utterly perfect ending.