This thorough two-disc reissue captures the underappreciated London band’s search for identity in the Britpop fallout.
In 1994, the Bluetones were four Londoners living out near Heathrow airport writing their first songs together in the garage of their Hounslow home. In February of 1996, their first album was one of the more anticipated full-length debuts of Britpop’s peak year. Expecting to Fly hit number one in the UK album charts, and soon enough went platinum. Leading up to that, the Bluetones rode in on a quick succession of well-crafted and zeitgeist-y early singles, two of which, “Are You Blue or Are You Blind?” and “Bluetonic”, seemed to point at a playfully cryptic vision by nicking from their own band name. Following those, “Slight Return” caught the attention of a wider national audience, resulting in television appearances and the number two spot on the UK chart.
The measuring stick for the songwriting depth of Britpop bands was often the quality of their B-sides. In that regard, the Bluetones weren’t quite up there with Oasis or Blur, but some real gems ended up buttressing those singles. Capping off Expecting to Fly’s run with the release of “Cut Some Rug”, they made it a double A-side with the previously unreleased “Castle Rock”, an arguably superior tune. As the summer of ’96 wound down, another new track made its UK radio debut. Released that September, “Marblehead Johnson” was supposed to be a stand-alone bridge to the band’s next album. However, no new Bluetones record would arrive until 1998, by which point Britpop had fallen out of favor, including with the Bluetones themselves.
In an interview with writer Paul Lester for the Guardian in 2014, Bluetones singer Mark Morriss described a sense of displacement in Cool Britannia that seems surprising for someone who benefited so notably from it, at least at first. “…[W]e felt like a displaced West Coast band,” Morriss claimed. “That’s why we called our debut album Expecting to Fly -- it was a nod to Buffalo Springfield. We were a bit more transatlantic than the Fred Perry and Adidas brigade.” Most of the music press back in the day had, in both praise and slight, been lazily pegging them as descendants of the Stone Roses. Return to the Last Chance Saloon was the band’s opportunity to show how much they disagreed.
With their second album, the Bluetones followed a time-honored British tradition of heading out West when there’s no room left to grow at home. Their thematic infatuation with the mythical region could actually be traced back as far as “Colorado Beetle” (a “Bluetonic” B-side), but, from its title to its artwork to many of its song titles and lyrics, Return to the Last Chance Saloon went all in. Fitting with the band’s sense of humor (see the video for “Marblehead Johnson”) however, their stoned visions of the West were not taken from the mythical John Wayne version of yore, but the more absurdist updates captured in ‘80s comedies like Raising Arizona (“Unpainted Arizona”) and Three Amigos! (their fond cover of that film’s “Blue Shadows” was released as a B-side and is included here).
Through and through, the album presents a rockier, bluesier, scruffier Bluetones than the fresh-faced likely lads behind Expecting to Fly. By today’s standards at least, two years is a perfectly reasonable amount of time to take between albums, but the constantly demanding UK music press was particularly ravenous in those heady days. The Bluetones were not impervious to outside pressure, as guitarist Adam Devlin candidly addresses in this reissue’s well-crafted liner notes:
“There’s a reason they call it ‘the difficult second album’. For the record company it’s difficult because the first one was a hit. For the band it’s difficult because they used up all their best stuff assembled over years on the first album and the well is now pretty much dry except for stuff that wasn’t good enough to go on the first album. That’s why it was difficult for us at least.”
Return to the Last Chance Saloon may not have immediately sprung from the deepest of wells, but once they finally struck water it came gushing out. As originally released, the album’s fourteen tracks even felt one too long, and the impression lingers that “Ames” or “Heard You Were Dead”, deeper cuts that didn’t bring much new to the table, could have been left off the record. That’s beside the point now, of course. This two-disc reissue is a thorough reinvestigation and celebration of the beginning of the Bluetones’ second major wave of creativity, which would carry on through their equally strong third album, Science & Nature. 3 Loop Music have left nary a stone unturned here.
Hearing “Marblehead Johnson” in this context, immediately following Return’s final track, “Woman Done Gone Left Me”, Devlin’s migration to grittier riffing makes more sense. If this orphan were ever to find a home, it’s now clear that Return would be a more appropriate shelter than Expecting to Fly, so it is nice that it landed here. Disc one finishes with four of the band’s favorite B-sides from the album, one chosen by each member. Three are covers: the aforementioned “Blue Shadows”, the Left Banke’s “Pretty Ballerina”, and the Embers’ “I Walked All Night”. Their earnest rendition of “Pretty Ballerina” particularly stands out, as does the one original, “I Was a Teenage Jesus”, which remains a fan favorite.
The second disc collects four songs from two different BBC Radio One sessions, one from 1996 and the other from 1998, as well as a thirteen-song BBC Sound City Newcastle live set, also from 1998. Both radio session and live versions of “4-Day Weekend” and “U.T.A.” might be a little unnecessary, but erring on the side of ‘more is more’ works well for the most part.
They nail the radio session takes of “The Simple Things” and “Vampire”, and hearing the neatly wrapped “Are You Blue or Are You Blind?”, something of the Bluetones’ own TV theme song, up against the rowdy “Solomon Bites the Worm” in a live setting illustrates how much they’d grown in just a few years. “Solomon Bites the Worm” and the album’s other singles, “If…” and “Sleazy Bed Track”, still stand out in a crowded room, but hearing how kindly less assuming numbers like “Sky Will Fall” and “Down at the Reservoir” have aged is another of this reissue’s many rewards.