Around twenty five years ago, in those pre-postmodern times before the Enlightenment project and its progressive tendencies seemed passé, a new voice came to the fore in English journalistic circles, a voice that was distinctive and opinionated. Peter York was then a bright and sparky social critic whose work cropped up in the upmarket magazine Harpers & Queen. But his stories didn’t preclude downmarket topics, as his articles surveyed the city of London and its many communities just as punk was casting its eerie and exciting shadow across the capital. In 1980, the collected thoughts of York were gathered in a well-received and widely read volume entitled Style Wars.
It was a clever collection. Its title not only lampooned the recent predilection for George Lucas’ Star Wars, but its content devised a whole new category of London life: the Sloane Ranger. Sloane Rangers were the young women, and sometimes the young men, who brought a cachet of old money to a new and swinging gathering as they gravitated towards and around the expensive environs of Sloane Square.
More than that, Style Wars and its essays prefaced what the British press would soon dub “the style decade of the Eighties”. Punk’s binbags finally got binned, and in a few years street couture reached the catwalk and people began to consider that the way their homes looked was a “statement” about their lives made to the wider world. In new monthly glossies like The Face, i-D and Blitz, this fresh scene was written about and photographed, reported and celebrated with vigour and with the very style that its journalists and graphic designers were so enthusiastically recording.
But York’s canvas was much broader than that. Another, smaller clique that drew York’s attention was found a very long way from his gal-about-town Sloane Ranger. Different in temperament, different in economic and social class, the Neurotic Boy Outsider was an intense, introverted, marginalised male who found himself drawn inexorably to the pop song as his medium of expression. Rock offered a paradox to this edgy, sensitive type it proffered the possibility of exhilaratingly instant release of pent up frustration. But it had a downside, too an excellent chance that the pop scribes would soon be scrutinising your psyche for evidence of emotional mania.
There is a long tradition of English songwriters literate, post-Angry Young Men, working class males who have struggled with the anomalies of the fame game. The genre has been both boon and bane to John Lennon, Ray Davies, Brian Jones, Johnny Rotten, Paul Weller, Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, Morrissey and Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker. These Neurotic Boy Outsiders have coped in different ways with the poisoned chalice of their own, often media-shaped image as restless, difficult and highly individual artists. Some Neurotic Boy Outsiders have shuffled off this mortal coil; some are now reclusive souls. Once bitten, twice shy; some have come falteringly to terms with the “reality” that is really the “sham” of celebrity.
In the mid-1990s, there was an almost accidental revival of the style when a group “of B-list guys from A-list bands”, according to the net’s All Music Guide, actually got together to a form a band called the Neurotic Boy Outsiders, later abbreviated to the Neurotic Outsiders. That second grade supergroup was formed from members of a great punk act: Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, a high profile new romantic combo, John Taylor of Duran Duran, and two Guns ‘N Roses alumni, Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum (also of the Cult). Briefly a virtual house band at the Viper Club in LA, they at least reminded us (if only in passing) of Peter York’s earlier, finely-tuned observation of the Neurotic Boy Outsider, even if their raucous and frayed rock’n’roll was actually of scant consequence.
However, the authentic NBOs from Lennon and Davies to Morrissey and Cocker and a few more besides were all band members drawing on the collected spirit of “groupdom” to showcase their insights. But they also enjoyed the umbrella cover of “community”, that defensive wall that a bunch of musicians can usually huddle behind. However, the last year or two has seen the emergence of a fresh generation of songsmiths who largely fit into the older York blueprint, but who have generally jettisoned the life support system of the group.
The Solo Neurotic Boy Outsiders lend a contemporary twist to the pop vision of Albion at the start of a new century, yet they share that same edgy insistence interwoven with a tendency to moody introspection. This new breed, more middle class perhaps than their antecedents, collaborate with others but they alone carry the can for the work that emerges.
Ed Harcourt has garnered some lavish reviews for his Mercury Prize-nominated Here Be Monsters; Tom McRae was also Mercury nominee for his eponymous debut long player, while Chris T-T, a favourite of the Radio 1 DJ Steve Lamacq, whose Evening Session show is the supreme court of indie kudos, is about to unveil his third collection of songs,The 253.
Their songs are scarred romances, bitter sweet ballads, offbeat commentaries, airy, spacious songs in the main, in which guitar and voice are the principal protagonists. With each, the vocal is suspended like a high wire over a safety net of sparse rhythms, and ambient, sepia washes; minor key, low key sketches shaded with a maudlin wit.
There Be Monsters has probably had most media attention with Harcourt emerging as both multi-instrumentalist and voracious reader from Hesse to Carver and Hunter S. Thompson whose follow up collection to the mini-album Maplewood, has attracted comparison with talents as diverse as Tom Waits, Randy Newman and Lou Reed. Yet the comparisons are neither fair nor truly accurate: there is rich promise here but there is also an Englishness: an ironic detachment that Newman may sometimes achieve, but that songwriters on the British side of the Atlantic frequently deploy and with more pointed effect. Harcourt is closer to a wry Nick Drake than any of those US names.
McRae’s CD begins in playful form with the brief crackle of needle on vinyl before unveiling a fragile cameo entitled “You Cut Her Hair”, which is as perfect a leftfield love song as you are likely to find: mere bones of a affair, broken poetic shards. And his wordplays, never overdone, pepper most songs with elegance. “The black and white of your sin.”, “This train don’t stop at the stations of the cross . . .” and “The boy with the bubblegun . . .” illustrate a lyricist who enjoys the disjunction of mixed metaphor. Charmingly, if anachronistically, he even suggests the album has both a side 1 and 2. But it is the voice, pained yet pure, that resonates throughout.
For Chris T-T, his latest batch of compositions, named after a London bus route, bring him to something of a crossroads. Although Lamacq has favoured and played tracks from his last album Panic Attack at Sainsbury’s and the forthcoming set, T-T wants to wriggle out of a tricky vice his versatile songwriting has snared him in. Last year’s single, “Dreaming of Injured Pop Stars”, was a feisty satire on the mordant chart scene, yet its novelty nature and dangerous content won him some British tabloid attention. The follow up contains an awesome, anthemic pop song in “Drink Beer”, already getting Radio 1 exposure, but the songwriter wants his more reflective tunes like “Buried in the English Earth” to also get a decent hearing. “Buried” is a kind of post-Blakean hymn to a green and not always so pleasant land, yet it perversely frames elements triggered by American novelist Paul Auster.
This trio seem to fit the older York template rather well, even if they are all solo mariners on a choppy sea, trading not on image but largely intelligence, viewing life and love through a distorting yet always engaging prism. The press have opened their doors to these thoughtful sorts before and not always made them feel at home: many British publications turn cynical in the face of ideas that venture beyond the mundane, especially in the philistine realm of rock. But Ed Harcourt, Tom McRae and Chris T-T are young and bold enough to try. The SNBO the Solo Neurotic Boy Outsiders may not be knocking at your nearest jukebox, but they may be paying a call on both your head, and maybe even your soul, in the months to come. I propose you offer them a welcome.
Ed Harcourt ‘s There Be Monsters is on Virgin; Tom McRae is on db Records; Chris T-T’s The 253 is out on Snowstorm in November 2001.