“What Manchester does today, the rest of the world does tomorrow.”
See also: On the Sixth Day God Created Man…chester: Part 1; Part 2 and; Part 3
“Has rock and pop music ever seemed so thoroughly knackered, so stumped for inspiration as it did in 2000?” asked The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis in a reflective preamble to his glowing review of Elbow’s Mercury Award-winning 2008 album, The Seldom Seen Kid. (“Elbow, The Seldom Seen Kid”, 14 March 2008) Alongside their fellow five-lettered friends from Greater Manchester, Doves, Elbow’s arrival on the national music stage at the dawn of the decade went largely unheralded at the time, their non-descript names, drab images, and neo-prog rock tendencies eliciting resigned yawns more than sparks of excitement.
Since, though, Elbow and Doves have emerged—or have been re-evaluated—as trailblazing innovators of British guitar rock, their creative and evocative albums earning almost unanimous critical acclaim. As is so often the case with bands at the forefront of a zeitgeist moment—a circumstance so many prior Manchester bands have been in—it often takes hindsight to appreciate that which at the time was not, or could not, be foreseen. Petridis accepts his own mea culpa, noting that while Elbow are today embraced as one of the saviors of British guitar rock, the “hot” indie acts of 2000—JJ72, My Vitriol, and King Adora—are but distant memories.
The history of modern Manchester music has been a story of reactions and reinventions, of bands recognizing their predecessors while also acknowledging the need to break from them to pursue uncharted territory at points of artistic exhaustion. By the end of the ‘90s, Britpop, the nation’s dominant guitar-based genre of the decade, had all but run its course, its principle flagship band, Manchester’s Oasis, reaching the point of what Pitchfork’s Hartley Goldstein called, “semi-retirement and complete creative bankruptcy.”
As Britpop faded, a new rock paradigm came into view, symbolized by established bands like Radiohead and U2, as well as by acolytes like Coldplay, Muse, and Travis. Less tied to the Beatles and Kinks formulas that had restricted Britpop’s song structures and styles, the so-called new millennium rock was less standardized and more ambitious in scope and purpose. Through an array of adventurous releases, Radiohead et al established an encouraging precedent: experimental rock music could still garner a receptive audience. And many of the new groups—Elbow and Doves among them—were taking note(s).
Although new millennium rock was neither rooted in nor developed from Manchester’s rock traditions, when filtered through and embraced by the city’s bands the genre often expressed many recognizable and long-standing local characteristics. Its anthemic song constructions played well to the stadium ambitions of U2, but in the hands of Elbow and Doves a more bitter-sweet melancholy and “rainy day” pall tempered the genre’s inclinations towards euphoria and grandiosity. Big and bombastic in the hands of Muse, Elbow and Doves brought modest restraint to their epic constructions. Slow burning and textural like Radiohead, Elbow and Doves juxtaposed their art rock atmospherics with more down-to-earth and grounded lyrical explorations.
New millennium rock has become the prevailing genre of the last decade for British bands with guitars, and it has also contributed a new chapter to the history of Manchester music. A low key and folk-oriented side to the form has been represented by such introspective operators as Badly Drawn Boy, I Am Kloot, and David Gray, while Elbow and Doves have developed a more multifaceted neo-progressive style. In their hands, an “introspective epic” side to new millennium rock has emerged, a sub-genre particularly identified with artists hailing from the Manchester music scene. This sub-genre echoes many of the hallmarks of the city’s musical roots, while simultaneously expanding beyond them, in the process continuing Manchester’s long-standing artistic trajectories towards innovation and influence.
Roots ‘n’ Fruits
The history of Manchester rock has been one where external as well as internal influences have been enthusiastically embraced, each used as stepping stones into new avenues of musical development. Elbow and Doves are clearly bands whose members have large and eclectic record collections. Classic prog rockers like Pink Floyd, Genesis, and ELO linger in the grooves of both bands’ long, shape-shifting songs, in their time variations, in their multiple effects, and in their experimental sonic directives. Tinkling pianos enter and exit, horns interject, orchestras soar, and choirs join in, often within the same song!
Yet this is not your father’s prog rock, as the moody sound-scapes of Elbow and Doves are infiltrated by the pulses of modernity, too, ambient techno rhythms often providing the backdrops for the more traditional instrumentation, particularly in Doves’ works. Radiohead are the common denominator inspiration here, but the acid house beats that the Madchester scene imported from Detroit and Chicago are equally omnipresent, while Manchester’s northern soul tradition—rooted in the beats of Motown—can also be heard, if, perhaps, by way of the precedential forays of the Stone Roses. For all the broad-ranging influences and deep musical roots at the heart of Elbow and Doves, a notably Manchester sound still emanates from them in the final product. As the NME opined when reviewing Doves’ house-inspired debut album, Lost Souls (2000), “above all you hear a time and place” in the songs. (“Lost Souls” 31 March 2000)
The striking similarities that make Elbow and Doves kindred rock spirits can be accounted for by their own deep roots in time and place. Unlike so many boom-and-bust bands of these times, Elbow and Doves are classically mature bands who paid their dues through many years of labor on the Greater Manchester small club circuit. While the Elbow boys met at school in Bury during the late ‘80s, Doves came from Wilmslow but came together through their common attendance at Manchester’s infamous Factory-owned Hacienda Club, which, during the late ‘80s, was the epicenter of the city’s acid house craze. There, they met with such Factory insiders as Rob Gretton and Bernard Sumner.
Then called Sub Sub, they signed with the former’s Rob Records and received production assistance from the latter, enjoying some commercial success with a few techno-inspired releases that owed more than a little to the prevailing Madchester techno scene, particularly to Sumner’s New Order. The band recently paid tribute to this influence with “Jetstream” (from Kingdom of Rust ), a song that could sit snugly within any New Order collection.
Elbow were similarly affected by the music that surrounded them in early nineties Manchester. Unlike Doves, however, they drew more inspiration from earlier local acts like Joy Division and The Smiths than from the pulsing beats of acid house. Ian Curtis’ bleak musings on existential themes and affairs of the heart echo through Guy Garvey’s similarly introspective reflections, though Garvey has a perspective more attuned to redemption than fated futility. Morrissey’s wry observational humor is also apparent in Garvey’s lyrics, self-deprecation being the common ingredient tempering their ubiquitous melodramatic pleas and lovelorn personas. PopMatters critic Michael Lomas assesses Garvey as “a less maudlin Morrissey” but still “one funny fucker.” (“Elbow: Leaders of the Free World”, 17 February 2006) Both largely out-of-step with the Britpop explosion of the mid-‘90s, Elbow and Doves were spectators as their fellow Mancunians Oasis exported the genre’s local manifestation around the globe. Such mis-timing has proven to be a mixed blessing for these bands, though, for as much as the ‘90s were barren years for them, when Britpop faded so Elbow and Doves were prepared to step into the void it left.
Now, rather than being perceived as aging has-beens (as Oasis have been), they have been embraced with adulation and admiration, their experience and perseverance seen as welcome aberrations within an industry ordinarily intent on disregarding such traits. Moreover, thanks to the good fortune of the winds of change, both bands have found that the neo-prog innovations they labored upon in decades past have now become the cutting edges of a larger rock zeitgeist, thus propelling them and their music to the forefront of critically-admired British guitar rock. And unlike some of the pouting prima donnas that preceded them from within Manchester’s rock royal court (hello Liam!), such a happy accident could not have happened to a more modest, accommodating, and nicer bunch of blokes.