With a successful UK tour under their belt (their first in over a decade), Hard Fi are back in the public eye and attention is being given to them as a band who offered up an authentic voice of working-class life in the mid 00’s. One preoccupied with being shipped off to Iraq to be killed, a lack of opportunities, living under constant surveillance and partying at the weekend as a way of offloading your frustrations.
However, while 2005’s ‘Stars of CCTV’ is a record that still sounds bold and exciting nearly 20 years on, it is the follow up album that is much more interesting for a variety of reasons.
Released in 2007, ‘Once Upon a Time…’ hit number 1 in the UK charts and received mixed to positive reviews. However, a combination of factors (bad timing, falling out of the top 20 after a few weeks, backlash/mockery over the cover, the lack of a ubiquitous single, the changing climate) means that the album is often overlooked in favour of the debut.
Beginning with the magnificently widescreen ‘Suburban Knights’, a bubbling electronic pulse gives way to backing vocals that match the epic feel of the song and sound good when sung along with a big crowd. Going small for the verses, frontman Richard Archer reminds us that while the world is at war, the bills keep piling up. For the big release in the chorus, he boldly states that “We're the ones that you've forgotten/But we will not be denied/Coming out of the shadows/Yeah, we rock the satellites”. As an album opener, it states its intentions loud and clear: we’re going for the arenas.
Mixing Justin Timberlake rhythms and Joe Strummer chords, ‘I Shall Overcome’ is a self-explanatory number about not letting the bastards grind you down. The use of soulful backing vocals for the chorus is a nice surprise and the strings add a greater sense of urgency to the proceedings, resulting in the pay off line sounding oddly downbeat, as if Archer realises that he has been in this situation a million times and must plough on.
‘Tonight’ begins as a plaintive piano ballad before the drums up the tempo and the hint of morse code (perhaps indicating danger) give way to a pleading chorus, strings and gang style backing vocals that culminate in a Wall of Sound. The end result has a kind of ‘wall of sound’ feel that complement the urgent need to escape the suburbs.
Built around a five note orchestral riff that oozes drama, ‘Watch Me Fall Apart’ is a self-pitying song where Archer invites the listener to “Stick around and watch me fall apart/Watch me lose the game that I made up/Stick around whilst I default the loan/Watch me reap the pain that I have sown”. Frustratingly, it’s less than three minutes long and one has the sense this could be much longer as Archer explores the character’s action while the orchestra would soundtrack the emotional drama. Nonetheless, it acts as a segue way from the big anthems into terrain a little less obvious.
With a thick bassline reminiscent of The Fall, a one note piano riff and the introduction of a brass section, ‘I Close My Eyes’ describes the daily grind needed to make a living, with the love of a good partner the only salvation guaranteed. Not particularly deep or insightful but the addition of added musical elements widen the album’s sonic palate and reflect the joy and despair of the lyrics.
One song that should have been a festival favourite, ‘Television’ melds together a jokingly cynical and upbeat chorus with verses that are more downbeat and a little despondent in places: listen to how Archer delivers the lines “You know we always want something/But somehow we end up with nothing”.
‘Help Me Please’ is a nakedly autobiographical song where Archer contemplates life without his parents. Musically, it is the most restrained number on the LP. And yet, with little touches of guitar feedback and melodica, it manages to sound both intimate and arena sized. That’s quite an achievement.
‘Can’t Get Along (Without You) is a dumb pop song, and that’s meant as a compliment. A cross between indie rock and Motown soul, it’s designed to be a mass, joyous singalong with bells (quite literally). This should have been a top 10 hit.
Easily the weakest song on the record, ‘We Need Love’ mines a particular type of electro music and mixes it with ska. Probably intended as a mass singalong designed to promote racial harmony (no bad thing of course), it feels like an underdeveloped demo that only made its way onto the album because it had the potential to be a live favourite (which it never became).
‘Little Angel’ is another soul influenced number that really should have been a single. Upbeat brass, mixed with dirty (for Hard Fi) guitars lead to a dumb but soaring chorus that is utterly joyous and in the moment.
Closing with ‘The King’, Archer laments how much his world has changed since he has grown older (“In this town, I used to be the king here/Now I don't mean a thing here, Where did it all go wrong/I look around, and no one knows my face here/I feel so out of place here, Where did it all go wrong?”), tying it with an old relationship that ended a while ago. Delivered in a voice that hints at bewilderment, affection, resentment and acceptance, and soundtracked by an orchestra and a simple set of guitar chords that build to something grandiose, ‘The King’ is The standout song on here.
The widely derided cover was well intentioned but poorly executed (clearly designed as a commentary on how the iPod age had decreased the significance of the album cover as a concept), with one NME reader summing up the inherent contradiction: “Aren’t the slogans on the cover a form of artwork? If Hard-Fi actually wanted to have no artwork, then the logical solution would have been to have no artwork.”
In 2010, Drowned in Sound would list it as one of the worst album covers of the last decade, describing it in visceral terminology: “Mustard yellow, aggressive white and black font. It's not appealing, and it's not even an original concept…It is idiocy masquerading as profundity. Every time I stare at it, I feel like the void is staring back at me; I feel the futility of my existence; I can feel the sands passing through the egg timer of my life. And I sigh.”
Archer would defend the cover, stating that “We got a lot of stick over the artwork and the main reason for that was that Peter Saville – the best graphic designer in the country – said it was good and that put a lot of peoples noses out of joint.” (Saville said that "This is a ‘White Album’ for the digital culture. Within a culture of soundbites and visual icons, I think the rejection of a visual icon is a bold and very intelligent gesture.")
With the resurgence in physical media over the last ten years, this debate is a relic of a bygone era. Nonetheless, there’s no denying that the cover is clunky and lacks the simplicity and immediacy of ‘Stars of CCTV’.
Describing it as a disappointment, NME’s Mark Beaumount felt that “…much of this album is comfortably interchangeable with ‘Stars Of CCTV’’s less inspired tracks, which makes it either a misguided attempt at the assertion of ‘realness’, or a worrying pointer to a dearth of new ideas. What’s clear, however, is that next time round, Hard-Fi are going to have to find something new to talk about – and to talk about it in more depth – or they’ll be shuffling back down that red brick road as quickly as they stormed out of it.”
Not necessarily true as there are numbers that deal with:
🎺escaping your surroundings (Tonight)
🎺 depression (Watch Me Fall Apart)
🎺 the death of a parent (Help Me Please)
🎺 the realisation that age catches up with us all (The King)
Mixed in with the songs about love, resilience and everyday worries, it can be argued that these four songs help accentuate the drama on the album beyond kitchen sink and into something more (dare I say) existential. Akin to a kid leaving school at the age of 16 and not really sure what direction he wants his life to go in.
Bad reviews are one thing but it’s also worth noting that, musically, the landscape in the UK charts had changed quite a bit since 2005. ‘Umbrella’ by Rhianna had topped the singles chart for 10 weeks. Robyn’s ‘With Every Heartbeat’ quite rightly won over indie scenesters as well as the pop kids and X-Factor winner Leona Lewis had the biggest selling single of the year with the monstrously awful ‘Bleeding Love’.
Sure, the likes of Editors and Bloc Party also had number one hits around this time as well. But there was definitely a sense in the air that guitar bands were no longer guaranteed a fair listen. Shiny, American dance-pop was back in, and indie was dismissed as sexless, jeans 'n' t-shirt, blokey music. Something that would become evident as 2007 gave way to 2008 as the first six months were dominated by Basshunter, Duffy, Estelle, Madonna, The Ting Tings and Rihanna.
More proof was the coinage of a particular phrase which has haunted retrospective views of this era: landfill indie.
Coined by journalist Andrew Harrison, he would tell the Independent in 2008 that “Indie has become a meaningless term. It just covers guitar bands…It was never meant to be about a type of music, it was a spirit and an attitude. When I glance around the bands that are supposedly ‘indie’ today, I don’t see any attitude. I don’t see any content in their records, any political interest in the band members. They’re a terrible generation, unfortunately, but they’re becoming famous overnight and selling a lot of records. I’ve heard them called ‘mortgage indie’. It’s a career path – a way of making a lot of money very quickly. The Kooks did so well so quickly. Scouting For Girls, from a standing start, have become a really big band. The Fratellis have become massive in a remarkably short time.”
While Hard Fi’s initial success pre-dated this term, they would find themselves being lumped in fairly quickly, which is odd considering the obvious soul and electro influences evident in the music.
However, Archer didn’t quite see it like that, blaming the muted reception solely on the press:
You don't know how to make a second album until you do it. You almost feel like you should be doing certain things and doing things a certain way. You should just be enjoying making music. The second album, despite all that, I really love it and I think it's great but it was hard. We'd just come off really busy touring, lots of personal things had happened and you go straight into making that record - it comes out and it feels a bit like it's open season. You know, lets give Hard-Fi a kicking.
Of course it’s impossible to see the bigger picture when in the eye of the storm and bands but, when the context is considered, it seems Once Upon a Time…didn’t stand much of a chance. Perhaps, if the album had come out at the start of 2007, it would have had much more staying power, followed by a jaunt round the festival circuit where a song like ‘Television’ would have gone down a storm.
Ultimately, what ‘Once Upon a Time…’ represents is Hard Fi widening their outlook and sound. No longer focused on soundtracking life within the suburbs, they seek to escape them for a variety of reasons. Sonically, the addition of strings gives the songs a more cinematic feel and extenuates the feeling of escape and the use of brass on certain songs demonstrates the influence of soul music. At a time when most of their peers were trying a little too hard to sound like U2 at times, these differences mattered.
Although it didn’t push them into the big league, ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ is still a fascinating record that wrestles with grandiose emotions while trying to remain grounded.
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.