The other week I went to see former Boo Radleys guitarist and songwriter Martin Carr play at the Borderline in London. It was an incredible show for many reasons, but it was criminally under-attended and it had a real air of poignancy coming just a few days after Ride’s triumphant show around the corner at ULU.
Martin recently released a wonderful new solo album called New Shapes Of Life, so a good portion of the set consisted of tracks from that, along with last year’s Trump and Farage baiting single, ‘Gold Lift’. However, there were also a surprising number of Boo Radleys songs in evidence, from big-hitters like ‘Lazarus’ to album cuts such as ‘Joel’, ‘Wilder’ and ‘Thinking Of Ways’.
While every other ’90s band has been busy reforming, I’ve not heard too many people suggesting that The Boo Radleys should get back together. I guess their magpie tendencies made them more difficult to pigeonhole than most; they certainly weren’t shoegazers, despite once sharing a manager with Slowdive and making one of the genre’s finest records in Everything’s Alright Forever.
Also, unlike most of their contemporaries, they had a proper chart hit/albatross in the shape of ‘Wake Up Boo!’, which, despite being heard by millions of people every day on Chris Evans’ BBC Radio 1 breakfast show and getting the band the Top Of The Pops appearances they had always craved, sent them into a commercial tailspin. “We probably started breaking up the day ‘Wake Up Boo!’ charted,” Martin told the Creation Records website in 2002. “We were interested in other things and money was never a huge motivator for us, even though that’s all people used to talk about at the time.”
Indeed, after Oasis went supernova, their label Creation became all about money and hits and success, and The Boo Radleys never really managed to repeat theirs. By the end of 1997, there were huge tensions within the band, and they spent a long time trying to find their way as they recorded what would be their sixth and final album, Kingsize, at Rockfield Studios.
“I didn’t enjoy making that record at all,” Martin told Sic Mag in 2010. “It cost a fortune because we were directionless. I should have taken control of the situation, but my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t like the music we were making; I didn’t like indie guitar music any more. I was bored out of my mind.”
Somehow, though, against all the odds, the end result was still incredible. Kingsize is a true, underrated classic that plays to the band’s strengths, sweetening the psychedelic experimentalism of 1996’s C’Mon Kids with perfect pop melodies and proper grown-up songwriting (even if Martin still didn’t think he was fit to tune Jimmy Webb’s guitar). As the skittering drum’n’bass beats of the intro lead into ‘Blue Room In Archway’, with its huge chorus and swelling strings, Kingsize sounds modern, majestic and as massive as its title suggests. “We didn’t want it to sound like 1968,” Martin told the NME at the time. “We wanted it to sound like 1998. And I think it does. It’s a pop record, but a very modern one.”
The bittersweet lyrics contain a timely amount of pre-millennium tension and have a general air of world-weariness, regret and fear of the future. No longer the exuberant “Twenty-five, don’t recall a time I felt this alive” of ‘Wake Up Boo!’, instead, on ‘Song From The Blueroom’, it’s “Now we’re older things are stranger than they’ve ever been/Now I’m scared of death for the first time”.
Unfortunately, Creation weren’t so impressed. When the band delivered what they thought was the finished album, Alan McGee reportedly asked Martin, “Who do you think is going to buy it? The 10,000 fans you’ve got in this country who can put you at number 31 for one week? Is that what you want?” And when it was suggested that ‘The Future Is Now’ could be the lead single, he scoffed: “An A-side? It’s not even a C-side!” and promptly sent the band back to the studio, where they produced the stately title track and the big beat anomaly of ‘Free Huey’, ostensibly about Black Panther party founder Huey P Newton, but surely a dig at their label too? (“We’re told to run towards the future while they’re standing on our feet/And be content with the scraps that they throw us/After promising a feast”).
Whatever ‘Free Huey’ was about, and despite its frantic call to arms and being all you can be, it didn’t even trouble the top 40. The album followed a few weeks later and managed to exceed even Alan McGee’s low expectations by limping in at number 62.
Talking to the NME, Martin and singer Sice were sanguine, and said they had finally realised “not so much what we want, but what we don’t want and how pleased we are not to have it”. “You see the pictures of these people at premieres in Leicester Square, or people partying in LA with Leonardo DiCaprio,” Martin laughed. “And if we were there, we’d just be complaining about how fucking boring it is.”
Leonardo DiCaprio had, of course, recently starred in the film Titanic, which was released on video on the same day as Kingsize – October 19, 1998. The Virgin Megastore in Oxford Street was opening especially at midnight on the Sunday as it went on sale and, for some inexplicable reason, someone decided that it was a good idea to arrange a Boo Radleys instore at the same time. The band played live from 10pm and then stuck around to sign copies of the album from midnight, although I seem to remember waiting outside for a long time before being allowed in. The queue for Titanic was at the front door on Oxford Street and the significantly smaller queue for the Boos was at the side entrance in Tottenham Court Road. All the drunk stragglers passing by didn’t realise and laughed at me and all of the other “sad wankers” who they thought were queueing on a cold, wet October night for a film about a sinking ship.
But little did we know it was The Boo Radleys who were heading full steam towards the iceberg as they played some of their new songs. The gig was their last in the UK; they played another radio session show in Paris the following month and then, on January 2, 1999, they announced their split.
Knowing all of this made the inclusion of ‘Kingsize’, ‘The Old Newsstand At Hamilton Square’ and ‘Blue Room In Archway’ in the setlist of Martin’s solo show at the Borderline the other week all the more incredible. Sung in his own voice, rather than Sice’s, and shorn of their studio trickery and sonic sheen, they took on a rightfully regal air that only 20 years of separation and soul-searching can give. And, of course, sad songs are easier to play, anyway.
How great it would be to raise the wreck of The Boo Radleys and hear these incredible songs – not to mention all the others that preceded them – with the full band once again…