In 1993, as a young Melody Maker writer, I accompanied Radiohead to Los Angeles. The influential KROQ station was playing the group’s second single Creep on constant rotation. It was, apparently, only a matter of time before this pattern was to be repeated across the entire USA. Neither the band or I had been to Los Angeles before. My job was to shadow them for three days as they set about promoting the song with a relentless string of interviews and meet-and-greets. At the famous Capitol building, we arrived at reception to find every member of staff wearing specially-made t-shirts bearing the word “Creep” in the style of the Capitol logo. Even at this early stage, the group seemed to sense that the very song that had brought them here might, if they weren’t careful, finish them off.
And, for a while, that’s exactly what looked to be happening. Radiohead spent almost the entirety of that year effectively playing to audiences who only wanted to hear one song. Somewhere in the cosmos, there’s a world, much like this one, in which Radiohead are condemned to a life spent appearing fourth on the bill on 90s indie package tours, playing Creep to theatres full of middle-aged music fans in black 501s. Perhaps it was the chilling thought of that parallel reality that prompted them to escape that fate in this world. As pop history now records, Radiohead only finally managed to rid themselves of their albatross by writing a song about it. “This, this is our new song/Just like the last one/A total waste of time,” sang Thom on My Iron Lung. The metaphor of the title perfectly described the situation in which they and, indeed, any artist primarily known for just one song finds themselves. You’re incarcerated by the very thing that’s keeping you in the game.
But for every Radiohead that sheds their albatross, there are several more that never quite get to make peace with what posterity is likely to have to say about them. The fact that they also came from Oxford and shared the same management team as Radiohead must have only served to throw Supergrass’s frustrations into sharper relief. The group preserved in the aspic of folk memory as three Chopper-riding bezzie mates cycling through Portmeirion in the video of Alright spent 15 years trying to usurp their gorblimey megahit in the affections of their public. Over six albums, but seemingly to no avail. Most of the people who listen to Alright when it gets an airing on Radio 2 or Smooth FM care as much about Supergrass’s maturity as Aled Jones’s record label cared for him after his balls dropped.
Perhaps it felt to Supergrass that their predicament was unique. In fact, they’re far from alone. On a bad day, you can hear Steve Harley bemoaning a music industry that “thinks I’ve only got one song.” Toploader will forever be haunted by their decision to cover King Harvest’s Dancing In The Moonlight – a song that captured the imagination of their record company and the wider world far more than any they could come up with themselves. In fact, the stages that many artists go through when dealing with one’s albatross are uncannily similar to the five stages of grief that follow bereavement or news of a terminal illness. These were identified by psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death And Dying (and were also used by writers Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis as the basis of Bill Murray’s plight in Groundhog Day). First comes denial. Just as the newly-bereaved often attempt to carry on as if nothing had happened, artists who massive hit is still fresh in the memory will often embark on a tour and place it early in the set, willing themselves to believe that people turning up to see them didn’t just come along to hear The Hit. Unfortunate consequences sometimes ensue when this happens. In 1996, watching Weezer in the wake of their breakout hit Buddy Holly, I saw a Denver concert hall empty out within a minute of the song’s final note. Closely following on from the denial stage, are the anger and bargaining stages. You’re more than your hit. Why are people so unwilling to see that? Why did people at Beady Eye’s early shows keep calling for Oasis songs? Did they not know? Enraging as this must have been for Liam Gallagher, he soon learned that having been in Oasis at all, could be used as a bargaining chip. Subsequent Beady Eye tours saw the group encore with Oasis songs. The subtext, this time around, seemed to be, “Here’s the deal. You listen to all our new songs and we’ll reward you with a couple of old ones.”
Both in loss and in dealing with your albatross, the next phase to kick in is depression. It’s at this point that many bands decide to call it a day. Rather than have to sing Sit Down one more time, in 2001, Tim Booth disbanded James to devote his life to teaching a quasi-Shamanic “movement meditation practice” called 5rhythms. So why, after a few years, did he eventually go back on he road with James, Sit Down and all – and, to the untrained eye, even seem to enjoy playing that song?
In the course of making, a radio programme about this subject, I attempted to contact Tim and find an answer to that question. We scheduled two interviews, both of which he cancelled with a few hours notice. Many more musicians whose Wikipedia bio is dominated by one small moment in their rich and varied lives were approached and declined to take part in the documentary, entitled How I Stopped Worrying And Learned To Love My Albatross. Some of them didn’t feel they had an albatross; others didn’t want to make the problem worse by taking part in a programme that further highlighted it.
It’s tempting to issue a rejoinder at this point. Something along the lines of, “All you need to do is write another song as good as that one, then this will cease to be an issue!” But for someone like Colin Vearncombe, aka Black, who has gone on to make nine more albums since scoring a worldwide hit with his 1987 single Wonderful Life, it’s not as simple as that. Wonderful Life was originally released on tiny independent Liverpool label Ugly Man. It was only when A&M signed Vearncombe, made an expensive video for Wonderful Life and threw their marketing might behind the song that the song took off. Vearncombe has written plenty of comparably great songs in the intervening 26 years – and my dearest hope for the programme is that more people will seek them out as a result – but maybe he would have to write one twice as amazing as Wonderful Life if it’s to compete with the nostalgic associations that we have freighted into our memories of the song.
In other words, the problem is often us. Back in 1992, I was in my final year at university in the Welsh market town of Lampeter. One Monday afternoon, every student on the campus received a note underneath their door reminding them that, tonight, the arts hall would pay host to a very special concert. “Ian McNabb from THE ICICLE WORKS who enjoyed a TOP TEN hit [they didn’t, by the way – it got to number 15] with LOVE IS A WONDERFUL COLOUR will be playing a very special show tonight. Featured in his band will be members of the group BLACK who scored a number one hit [they didn’t, by the way – it got to number eight] with the song WONDERFUL LIFE. Get there early! This one is sure to sell out!”
It didn’t, of course. About 100 people showed up. Looking like this was the last place in the world he wanted to be, Ian led a three-piece, whose bassist did indeed play on Wonderful Life, through a set of Icicle Works and solo numbers. With teeth almost visibly gritted, he encored with Love Is A Wonderful Colour. But for some people, this wasn’t quite enough. Backstage in his dressing room (well actually, it was the geography lecture hall) two female students descended upon him and, while helping themselves to red wine from his rider, flirted with him and proceeded to tell him how brilliant he was. Just one thing was bothering them, however. Why didn’t he play his big hit?
“What are you on about?” said Ian.
“The song! The song!” they persisted. “You didn’t play the song!” They seemed to be getting leerier by the second. Finally, they leaned over the wooden desk and reached for the guitar next to it. Thrusting it into Ian McNabb’s hands, they demanded he sing it for them now.
Finally, he relented. “All right. If you start, I’ll join in,” he said. At which point, the students launched themselves into the chorus of Wonderful Life. Understandably, Ian McNabb didn’t want to play along anymore. “Girls, I think it’s time you went home. What do you think?”
They weren’t slow to tell him what they thought. “Oh, do you? DO YOU? You think you’re a big pop star, do you? You think you’re famous? Well, let me tell you something. I’VE never heard of you.” And with that, they were gone.
In the course of making How I Stopped Worrying And Learned To Love My Albatross, I got to tell Colin Vearncombe the story (I’ve also mentioned it to Ian McNabb, but he has erased the trauma from his memory). “It’s not untypical,” he says, “Someone in Germany once asked me, ‘Why don’t you make beautiful music anymore? It turns out he hadn’t heard anything I’d done since Wonderful Life.”
I also spoke to Sandie Shaw, Clare Grogan, Ralph McTell and Mike Batt. As the programme title suggests, they’ve all made peace with their albatrosses – respectively: Puppet On A String, Happy Birthday, Streets Of London and, well, being a Womble. But Colin is conspicuously the least reconciled to his situation. “Frankly, I’m kind of bored of [Wonderful Life],” he says, “I can even sing it asleep.” But he also acknowledges that the royalties he receives from the song have also thrown him a vocational lifeline. If you listen to the programme, you’ll hear me telling him that there’ll be some people who will inevitably suggest he try digging holes for a living and see how he likes that. His incredulous response: “And what on earth makes them think I haven’t?” Yes, there’s many a worse fate that could befall a singer-songwriter. But, as he points out, it’s a bit “like living with a stone in your shoe.” In other words, should you shut up complaining about it because there are some people in the world who don’t own any shoes?
At one point, Colin confides that the reason he “agreed to this conversation” is that he hoped it might allow him to get a bit closer towards the state described in the title of the programme. Of the other interviewees, the closest case to his is Ralph McTell. In the wake of Streets Of London, Ralph was so rattled by the song’s worldwide success that he even stopped performing it. Feeling like he was being defined by it, he even ran away to America in order to work out exactly how to proceed beyond that point. Ralph’s saving grace was that he came through folk music – so that when the pop stardom briefly afforded to him by Streets Of London settled down, he could play to small audiences of folk fans who often defined their loyalty to Ralph by deeming Streets Of London as merely equal or even inferior to his other songs. Sandie Shaw says that the turning point for her was her 1983 alliance with The Smiths. When Morrissey and Marr wrote to her, they made a point of telling her that Puppet On A String was their least favourite of all her hits. Clare Grogan’s aversion to Happy Birthday was so intense that, for several years, she couldn’t even utter the title. She was 23 when Altered Images disbanded acrimoniously. For her, their biggest hit was just the door into a world of pain. As a young singer-songwriter, Mike Batt aspired to the sort of success that Cat Stevens and Simon & Garfunkel enjoyed. A few years down the line, however, he found himself denied work as a result of his involvement with The Wombles – first as a producer to acts whose label bosses feared their credibility would be compromised when the world saw that they were “friends with a womble” and then, as the man who discovered Katie Melua. His Dramatico label was started as a direct result of his inability to secure Melua a deal with a major label.
So why does a cycle of behaviour coined by a psychiatrist to help us understand the grieving process apply so closely to the ostensibly joyous business of having a hit record? Common to both situations is a massive loss of control. When we imagine sudden success and recognition, I think we’re imagining a kind of freedom. When Liam Gallagher sings Rock ’n’ Roll Star, he’s singing about a superhuman state afforded by money and fame. Twenty years later, watching him in Beady Eye, trying to rouse a response from an apathetic midday Glastonbury crowd, he looks like a man being crushed by the memory – both his audience’s and his own – of better times. Some artists, of course, manage to shed their albatross. Others come to an accommodation with it. And by doing so, they realise something that, actually, we all have to realise at some point. You start off thinking you’re the author of your story. Life teaches you that you’re merely the protagonist. A hit record won’t exempt you from that rule, but it might well compound it.