The Bluetones and their love of fine cinema

As a child, a fortunate trip to my local Blockbuster during a clearout sale meant I was able to blow every last penny I had on four albums that significantly changed the course of my listening habits.

The year was 1997 and I was a mere twelve years of age.

Amongst them were Blur’s eponymous fifth album, Kula Shaker’s ‘K’, Supergrass’s ‘I Should Coco’ and debut The Bluetones album ‘Expecting to Fly’. All four bands are still regulars on my stereo and I’ve followed them throughout their subsequent careers, with all their variously successful (and unsuccessful) side projects.

Of course, as life-changing events go this is quite indicative of my relatively burden-free upbringing. But it stuck with me, so just deal with it.

Fast forward to 2005 and I was writing for my university music magazine. Unbelievably, I managed to secure an interview with Mark Morriss, lead singer for The Bluetones. I will admit I was entirely unprofessional in my approach, basically because I was spending a good hour with one of my idols.

The topic of album track ‘Heard You Were Dead’ came up during the interview, which featured on their second album ‘Return to the Last Chance Saloon’. I hadn’t quite segued into an information-thirsty cinema lover by this point, so the title of the song was lost on me. Mark politely explained the reference to me – a repeated quote in John Carpenter’s 1981 dystopian action film ‘Escape From New York’ – and we had a chat about how much he liked the film.

Another fourteen years have passed since then and it has become apparent that their back catalogue is littered with unlikely references to the films they love. Listening to these songs again with a more complete love of television and cinema history, suddenly the references start to jump out at you.

Here are a few of my favourites.

1. Heard You Were Dead (1997)

As mentioned above, this is a reference to the insanely brilliant John Carpenter sci-fi action film starring Kurt Russell. If you’ve never seen it before, it’s well worth checking out. If you notice there’s a sequel set in LA, simply press play on the New York one again.

The lyrics to the song aren’t steeped in Snake Plissken references, instead focusing on a friend, seemingly lost to suicide (“It was over in a moment, you passed without a sound,
I know that you were shackled, but now you are unbound”). It’s a song that sits well at the end of the band’s second album, Return to the Last Chance Saloon, the lull before the brilliantly explosive and catchy ‘Broken Starr’ that closes that album, and whose name may itself be a reference to Belle Starr, the subject of many western films.

2. Thought You’d Be Taller

Not done with the Snake Pliskin references, the boys returned to the same source material to name this b-side to Autophilia. Somewhat wasted as a b-side, this track made a reappearance on the Rough Outline compilation a few years after its release, making sure it’s a bit easier to get hold of. It’s a tale about meeting a hero and being disappointed, so the lyrics sadly aren’t an out-and-out Pliskin tale.

3. Autophilia (Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love My Car) (2000)

This track is one of my least favourite tracks released as a single by the band, but it remains a firm fan favourite. The lyrics are about a man’s overzealous love for his car. The video suitably parodies ‘Greased Lightning’ from Grease, whilst the name of the song title is inspired by the full title of Stanley Kubrick’s film ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’.

4. Zorrro (1999)

Apparently not scared of adding in an additional “r” into the title of their songs, The Bluetones opened their third album ‘Science and Nature’ with ‘Zorrro’. Zorro was a swashbuckling adventure character that has had several attempted reboots over the years, most famously with Antonio Banderas filling the boots in a disappointing 1998 film called The Mask of Zorro.

This track brilliantly kicked off their third album ‘Science and Nature’. If you’ve never heard it, you’re missing out. It’s likely the band were struggling for a name for this song since the lyrics have nothing to do with the Zorro franchise, instead concentrating on some mysterious celebration day. Indeed, it would have made more sense had it been called ‘The Wicker Man’, but then the band never liked to leave the crumbs out in the open.

5. Serenity Now (2005)

In 2005, The ‘Tones released a cracking four-track EP titled Serenity Now. The title track is arguably one of their finest pop singles and certainly one of their most underrated. A couple of years later I was working my way through Seinfeld and got to the Season 9 episode ‘The Serenity Now’. The episode features George Costanza trying to maintain his anger using a calming technique he learned from his father, who was advised to say “Serenity now!” every time he felt his anger boiling over. It’s a brilliant episode of a brilliant season of a brilliant sitcom.

The song is just as good. It kicks off with a twisting, memorable guitar riff from guitarist Adam Devlin, before firing itself into a vocal melody as catchy as anything Mark Morriss has ever committed to record. It has borrowed the title from Seinfeld as a homage, with lyrics focusing on the hatred towards a disruptive person (“Everybody you meet wants to knock your, teeth out”) and regret over not standing up to them sooner. My only issue is seeing George Costanza every time I hear the song now.

6. Hey Schmoopy (2010)

‘Serenity Now’ wasn’t the last time they showed their love of Seinfeld. Their sixth album ‘A New Athens’ featured a secret track. Titled ‘Hey Schmoopy’, it’s a reference to one of the best ever episodes of Seinfeld – The Soup Nazi. In the episode, Jerry has a new girlfriend called Sheila who he keeps referring to as “schmoopy’, much to the ire of George.

The song is a simple ukulele-led instrumental song, so it’s likely that it was finished on the same day as the band watched an episode of Seinfeld and they named it after that.

7. The Fountainhead (1995)

‘The Fountainhead’ was one of the band’s first ever singles, initially finding a home on the Fierce Panda label in 1994. The name is inspired by the novel of the same name, or more likely the film adaptation from 1949 starring Gary Cooperas Howard Roark. In it, a young architect wants to work in ‘modern architecture’, despite the film he works for tending towards traditional designs.

I had always thought this song was about a failing romantic relationship but with the knowledge of the film it is more likely to be about the storyline of the film.

“God knows I’ve tried to bridge the gap,
I’ve tried to be me and time after time I’ve lied,
Just to say the things you wanted to hear”

8. Castle Rock

‘Castle Rock’ is named after the fictional town that provides the setting of many Stephen King stories. They include ‘The Body’ (a.k.a. ‘Stand By Me’), ‘Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption’ and ‘Cujo’.

I can’t see any reference in the lyrics to anything in any of the films. I’m sure the chorus would have been improved with the phrase “I think I might be losing my way” being replaced by “I think that Chopper’s sicking my balls”, even though it wouldn’t have fit tonally.

9. After Hours (2002)

The lyrics aren’t any kind of reference to films (other than a glancing nod to Fred Astaire), but the Edgar Wright music video is a joy to behold.

It’s clearly inspired by 1976 musical comedy film Bugsy Malone. It’s a prohibition-era bar, serving milk rather than beer and starring children as the gangsters. It comes complete with dancing children and a punchline gag involving the band and some cream-firing guns.

Edgar Wright is good friends with The Bluetones and has regularly collaborated with the band throughout his career. He directed the music video for ‘Keep The Home Fires Burning’ in 2000. They starred in an episode of Spaced in 2001 titled ‘Mettle’, which centred around a robot wars tournament (in which the band competed). He featured their Science and Nature track ‘Blood Bubble’ in the trailers to promote the series. Later on, Sleazy Bed Track was used his film in Scott Pilgrim vs The World.

Their work together never got any better than the After Hours music video and it’s a real underrated gem.

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Well now I just want to listen to The Bluetones.

Interview with Mark Morris from The Bluetones, 13th October 2005

I recently unearthed a collection of interviews and articles that I wrote in the mid-00s for Nottingham student magazine The Mic, where I was an editor. The magazine still exists today, which is great to see given I was there at the very start. I’ve been posting them unaltered in their original format.

The third interview is with lead singer of The Bluetones, Mark Morriss. I was 20 at the time and remember being fairly unprofessional – you should always try to keep a level playing field but I’d been a huge fan of the band for around a decade and I’m fairly sure it showed. Mark had recently released a solo record under the guise of Fi-Lo Beddow, a reference to a Clint Eastwood character I hadn’t picked up at the time (his name in the film Every Which Way But Loose was Philo Beddoe).

Like the HAL interview, it feels like the review of the live gig is missing from the end of the article. Alas, I appear to have lost that part so we’ll just have to let the article dissipate with no real ending.

Anyway, it must be of interest to some of you so here it is…

We join Mark Morriss hours before he takes to the stage for a blinding set at Nottingham’s Rescue Rooms. It’s over a decade since he crashed onto the UK music scene fronting Britpop antithetics The Bluetones. But whilst most of the acts from the same era seem to have undergone line-up changes, arguments and farewell tours, The ‘Tones are still going strong with the four members that started it all back in the mid 90s. 

“I think we were very lucky when we put the band together that we really did pick the four right people,” he opens. “We’re all still very good friends, which is not always the case from my experience of knowing different musicians from other groups. We have a chemistry that works because we’re friends and others have it because there’s animosity. We all get on – there’s no real bitching or bickering. There’s none at all really. Everyone’s quite up front and on the table and we all feel like we’re on the same side. So democracy can work.”

The Bluetones started life like so many bands have in recent years with a release on Fierce Panda. The track itself, ‘No 11’ (so called because it was the 11th song they wrote) later resurfaced as ‘Bluetonic’ on the debut album ‘Expecting to Fly’, their first on Superior Quality Recordings. The label itself is a small independent label, which still exists today. It has been home to Mover, King Adora and more recently The Vessels. The size of the label was to prove key. It gave them more freedom over their affairs and allowed them to remain centre of attention at a time when many labels might have dropped a band labelled as ‘Britpop’. 

The follow up album, ‘Return to the Last Chance Saloon’, also made the top ten and featured a handful of singles, and is arguably their most rounded effort to date. It also features a track called ‘I Heard You Were Dead’, still a favourite amongst fans and rumoured to be about the late Gram Parsons. But Mark has different recollections: “It’s not about Gram Parsons. It was inspired by the film ‘Escape From New York’, and a character in it called Snake Plissken. Everyone he meets says, “I heard you were dead”, and it just stuck in my head that night. Later on I wrote a follow up song because in ‘Escape From LA’ everyone meets him and says, “I thought you’d be taller,” so I wrote a song called ‘Thought You’d Be Taller’ a couple of years later. I guess it comes back to one of my favourite themes, which is the dumbing down of society, or as it appears to me.”

By the time they released their third album, ‘Science and Nature’, they had signed a deal with Mercury. Despite having a troublesome experience with the label, the singer still stands by the album as the most enjoyable to date. “The most fun to make was ‘Science and Nature’. It has a kind of free and cut loose feel to it. We knew it was going to be the last record with Mercury and there was a feeling of getting it out of the way, so we kind of took the piss when we were recording it. I really like it though, I think it’s our most diverse and multi-coloured release.”

The deal itself was in fact for two albums, but the second came in the form of ‘The Singles’. However, the idea of a career retrospective wasn’t accepted wholeheartedly by the band. “We were fifty-fifty really,” admits Morriss, “We weren’t really in favour of the timing of it but we were just glad to get clear of Mercury so we bit the bullet and agreed to stick it out because that meant we were set free. It was more of a contractual obligation really. It was the last throw of the dice for them to cash in on us a bit, but in the end it seemed like a bit of a rip off.”

Then came their fourth studio album, ‘Luxembourg’. Released in early 2003, it represented a raw departure from their traditional sounds. “We never go as far as to reinvent ourselves, but we always try a slightly different approach with each record, whether it be a different sound or technique to song writing. ‘Luxembourg’ was quite stripped down, almost like a garage band. There were no acoustic guitars on it. That was something we deliberately set out to do.”

After the promotion for that album had died down, Mark moved his attention to other things, namely a new solo project called Fi-Lo Beddow. He’s taken his new venture up and down the country over the last 18 months playing low key performances and making surprise appearances in many of the smaller venues. But despite this, he’s adamant of his top priority. “The Fi-Lo thing is just something I do to keep me going in between albums, or if we’re taking a break for one reason or another. It’s just having some fun and knocking some songs around in my friend’s garage. I think all my energy is going to concentrate on The Bluetones for a little while. There might be the odd acoustic appearances here and there but there’s not enough hours in the day to do both!”

However, it’s not as though the band themselves have been lazing around for the two years since their last release. In between embarking on a mammoth 50 date UK tour, setting up solo projects and starting families, The ‘Tones have found the time to record a new EP. Titled ‘Serenity Now’ and featuring four brand new tracks it marks yet another excellent addition to the catalogue. The title track itself is an infectious little number, but every dynamic is represented across the release. ‘Mine in the Morning’ is about as mellow as they’ve ever been but this is juxtaposed by a tongue in cheek track called ‘The Happy Lobotomy’. It’s a release that has been willingly received by the ever-strong hard-core fan base who eagerly await the full-length album next year. “There’s a new album next year, but this is separate from that. It’s the last release for the time being with Superior Quality Recordings. We’re signing a new deal with Cooking Vinyl and our next album will be out through them next year.”

On top of this, serious plans are being made about representing The Bluetones’ 12 year history in a way the band have more of a control over. “Next year there’s going to be a couple of DVDs out. There’s one that’s going to be a live show with other bits of extras. It’s going to be filmed this Friday at London’s Shepherds Bush,” he indulges. “But there’s also going to be a sort of retrospective DVD at some point. Like a documentary on the history of the band. That’s one we’re doing ourselves, so who knows?”

Furthermore, and despite reports to the contrary, there will be a career spanning B-Sides collection released. “That is still happening, although it’s in the hands of lawyers at the moment. The rights to the B-Sides are on Mercury, and we’ve had to negotiate a deal with them so that they’ll let us have them back. It’s taken a bit more time than we’d thought because they’re kind of dragging their heels but it looks like it’s going to go through early next year.” With so many B-sides to choose from though, including ‘Nifkin’s Bridge’ or currently-revived live favourite ‘I Was A Teenage Jesus’, which tracks will make the cut? “I think some of our best songs are B-Sides! I’ve always said this but I think our B-Sides album will be our best album. There are a lot of songs on it – maybe 40 to go on it, so it’s a big one. I don’t see the point in cutting out the bad ones. I think it’s just a case of warts and all. Every song.”

Eagle eyed readers may have spotted The Bluetones trying their hand at comedy in recent years. Having allowed close friend Edgar Wright to use the track ‘Blood Bubble’ in the adverts for his series Spaced, Edgar returned the favour by getting in members to be extras in an episode. “I’m just lucky really that people I’m friends with are talented and clever and managed to get themselves on TV. He directed a couple of Bluetones videos as well. I was in Little Britain as well because I know Matt and David, and Matt has done a video with us too.”

The current tour is going well, despite some potential hiccups. “I woke up on Monday morning after the gig on Sunday night and I couldn’t even speak. It didn’t get any better so at about 11pm that night I decided I wasn’t going to be good enough for the gig the day after. It’s just some bad timing really. I had a bit of a viral infection before the tour started and I don’t think I shook it off properly before we got going. Plus obviously it’s not very easy to shake when you’re on tour. I like touring, but I like touring when I’m feeling better.”