For those who don’t know him, English singer-songwriter Frank Turner is a pretty big star in his homeland. He has headlined Wembley Arena, the O2 Arena, played at the opening of the 2012 London Olympics, and hosted his own four-day festival, Lost Evenings, at the London Roundhouse in 2017. Educated at Eton College, Turner fronted the British post-hardcore group Million Dead beginning in 2000, and this book begins with the death throes of Million Dead.
Turner has also taken on the task of meticulously tracking his incredible gigography as a solo artist (always available on his website Frank-Turner.com). As of this review, he has played 2,074 gigs in 45 US states and in 45 countries. While tracking his shows, Turner includes not only ticket-selling gigs, but other impromptu public performances in parking lots, coffee houses, and public parks. For example, I attended gig #1574, at Atlanta’s Candler Park Festival, but gig #1575 took place just hours later, as Frank announced via Twitter that he was going to play a solo acoustic set in Atlanta’s Little Five Points neighborhood. His commitment to keeping his gig history alive is furthered in his new book, The Road Beneath My Feet, a partial tour diary of his first 1217 shows.
Turner’s rise from post-hardcore frontman to Olympic Opening Ceremony opening act is remarkable, and the book begins with Million Dead show #247, ironically more of a whimper than a bang, in Southampton in September of 2005. After five years, the band had collapsed under the strain of being a touring band in an unstable industry. It didn’t help, as Turner notes, that “we were terrible communicators and fell out of friendship with each other as time went by.” Just a few weeks later, Turner is playing a solo gig (technically, number eight, because he had played a few solo shows before the breakup of the band), armed with a bag of CD-Rs of his solo work, at a café in Southend-on-Sea, beginning an amazing run as a live musician. Along the way he builds a band, The Sleeping Souls, and a repertoire of crowd-pleasing anthems and heartbroken ballads.
What transpires throughout The Road Beneath My Feet is a first-person love letter to the power of live music that gives a warts-and-all understanding of the life of an artist who plays, on average, over 150 shows a year. Along the way, Turner has released six albums, several singles and Eps, four compilations, three DVDs, participated in several side projects, and is the subject of a new documentary, but the heart and soul of his music is found in his live performances. When he puts down his guitar to sing his anthem to the joy of dancing to live music, “Four Simple Words”, he holds the crowd in the palm of his hands. A sense of community and connection between singer and audience is forged in his live shows, and it’s clear to see why this happens: the man lives for the show, and the show is almost always on the road.
The road, unfortunately, isn’t always perfect. One of the aspects of this memoir, redolent of the classic punk rock tour diary, Henry Rollins’ Get in the Van, is that Turner doesn’t focus solely on his triumphs. Take, for instance, Show #155, which took place in Latvia. The route to the show would make for a great slapstick travel comedy: a brash 14-year-old Russian kid called Dimitri, a police officer looking for a bribe, conflict between Lithuanians and Latvians, a dead deer, indifferent Lithuanian cops, and a makeshift tow rope fashioned out of the deer-damaged car’s seatbelt all leading up to “a kind of euphoria and pure joy at the knowledge the journey was over and that I could now, finally, play a show.” If you are a fan of travelogues or the behind the scenes activities at rock shows, this book will please you to no small end.
His recollections of the scene that helped forge his career, at north London’s Nambucca, are particularly interesting to read. Other musicians who played regularly at Nambucca include Marcus Mumford (of Mumford and Sons), Laura Marling, The Holloways, Julian Young (aka Jay Jay Pistolet) of The Vaccines, Kid Harpoon, and Frank’s frequent tour partner Jay McAllister, known as Beans on Toast. Many of these friends have appeared in several of Turner’s Nambucca-referencing songs, including “I Knew Prufrock Before He Was Famous” from Love Ire and Song and “The Ballad of Me and My Friends” from Sleep is For the Week, so their presence here in the book are like pop-in visits from old friends if you’re a fan of Turner’s music. It’s fascinating to read how a small group of like-minded friends can be so instrumental to the development of a nascent artist.
It’s too easy to assume that songwriters like Frank Turner are born fully-formed, steeped with genius from birth, but the encouragement and love of his Nambucca peers is a large part of what brings his communitarian attitude towards the audience to life. Far too often, music fans and critics forget the influence of clubs, record stores, and labels on the music that steals our hearts, but Turner goes out of his way, in his book and his music, to remind us that those things matter.
Despite his often pensive and reflective songwriting, the normal rock and rock accoutrements are present in his journey. There are drugs (“pills and powders”) and sex, but nothing salacious enough to make it onto TMZ. Turner is often quite confessional in his lyrics about his failures in relationships (my wife once commented “Oh, it looks like Frank wrote another song about being a shitty boyfriend” and I had to laugh because it’s pretty close to true) and most of those revelations remain in the songs. Instead, the reader finds a shocking amount of positivity in these tour entries and a sense of realistic pride at his life as a touring musician. In his own words, “I’m not claiming to have achieved much in this life, my calling isn’t nearly as important as most, but I can look at that list (of his first one thousand shows) with some degree of pride. This is my trade, my craft, I set out to do it, however cautiously at first, and I did it.”
In the end, this is a lively and entertaining story of a life on the road. One of Turner’s most prophetic songs, “The Road”, (from which the book’s title comes) features the lines “I face the horizon, everywhere I go / I face the horizon, the horizon is my home”. If you’ve never heard his music, it’s worth a listen. But if you really want the full experience, his live show is the heart and soul of Frank Turner, live musician. This book is a useful window into that heart and soul.