Hail To The Chiefs

6 minute read

This is a big moment for Ricky Wilson, and he’s not about to mess it up with a concussion. Onstage before a packed and sweaty crowd at the Barfly in London’s Camden Town, the energetic frontman of the Kaiser Chiefs makes the first of several aerial leaps, slipping his head between spotlights on the lighting rig. Somehow, Wilson seems to know exactly how high to jump, perhaps out of a confidence that stage space won’t be a problem for much longer. Without missing a beat during the opener Na Na Na Na Naa,he tells the club crowd: “Hello, Barfly, this will be the last time we play here.”

It might sound like arrogance, but this neonew wave band can be forgiven if their heads have swelled just a bit. They’ve got a single, Oh My God,in the British Top 10, their debut album, Employment, is due out this week, and next week they set off on a 10-city tour of the U.S., followed by a European tour in May. Their explosive success is a sure sign that, after years of being overshadowed by rave, hip-hop and prefabricated pop bands, British rock ‘n’ roll is back. From the kiddie-rock of McFly to the dinner-party soundtrack of Keane to the old-school beats of New Order, there’s a rock group for just about everyone. Last week, eight of the Top 10 albums in the U.K. were by rock bands.

But the most compelling development is the critical mass of bands like the Chiefs, as they’re known in their native Leeds, who are successfully riding the ’80s new wave sound revived four years ago by New York rockers the Strokes. In the U.K., after the Scottish art rock band Franz Ferdinand opened the gates last year, skinny ties and all, a flood of similar-sounding bands has rushed in, including the Futureheads from Sunderland in northeast England, Londoners Razorlight and Bloc Party, and Leicester’s Kasabian.

And that crop is about to hit the biggest, toughest rock market of all: the U.S. In recent years, Americans have ignored British music with a vengeance. In 1986, U.K. acts accounted for 32% of the market share of albums in the U.S. Billboard Top 100; by 1999, it was just 0.2%. A British 404 Not Found

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nginx/1.14.0 (Ubuntu) Council report blamed record-industry and radio-station consolidation as well as increasingly insular American tastes. “Structurally, the British music industry has been basically shut down in America,” complains co-author of the report and former boss of Chrysalis Records Doug D’Arcy. But that’s starting to change. British acts like Coldplay, Keane and Joss Stone have recently found some joy in the U.S. charts. And the buzz on the new new wave bands is building, just as they are about to converge en masse in Austin, Texas over the next week for the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) music convention.

Is it a bona fide rock movement? Certainly, the bands have found common influences in the likes of ’80s pioneers Gang of Four and XTC. “It could be seen as like a push, but then maybe it’s just because we’re all brilliant,” muses Wilson. “We’re all hitting the ground running at the same time, with Bloc Party and the Futureheads. I’m sure we’re all going to meet up in Austin and have a wild party.”

But it would be wrong to think of these bands as carbon copies of one another. The Kaiser Chiefs have a playful and distinctly British sound, “more Madness than Gang of Four,” Wilson says. Kasabian take their lead from Manchester bands of the late ’80s like the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays, while Bloc Party share the nervy punk-funk of Gang of Four. The Futureheads’ sound is inspired by the post-punk of the Jam and the Slits, and according to singer and guitarist Barry Hyde, “I love XTC. Their first 10 albums are essential.”

Such reverence for ’80s music seems to be striking a chord on both sides of the Atlantic. The Futureheads have had a U.K. Top 10 hit — appropriately enough, an inspired cover of Kate Bush’s 1986 Hounds of Love — and are relaunching their debut album this week. The band is halfway through its sold-out U.S. tour, and the Americans appear to approve as well. “We had a look through our press pack yesterday,” says Hyde. “It was like the f___ing Yellow Pages!” But Hyde knows that the American market is a grind: “We’re not under any delusions about the place. We understand how hard it is and we enjoy it.”

It’s this work ethic that just might make the difference for the new crop. Britpop stars from the ’90s like Oasis and Blur seemed to believe that U.S. success would fall into their laps; American music fans had other ideas. “There was the hangover of the indy attitude where it was cool not to make much of an effort,” says Alex Needham, deputy editor of U.K. music mag NME. “I think everyone has got more wised up to what it takes to be successful in America. It’s just a different attitude.”

Music veterans say it’s always been that way. “It was my job in the ’60s,” says D’Arcy. “We would routinely do eight-week tours with bands in the U.S. and probably do three or four of them in a year.” Andy Gill of the recently reformed Gang of Four agrees: “We played quite a lot in the States, but then business heads in America would tell you, ‘Guys, you’ve basically got to move here. You’ve got to play every night for two years.'”

The message is getting through. Franz Ferdinand toured five times in the U.S. last year and ended up with three Grammy nominations at the end of it. The Futureheads are already penciled in to tour twice more this year, and at the Coachella Festival at the end of April at least 20 British acts will play to the California crowd. With government backing, a record 56 British bands will be in Texas next week at SXSW to strut their stuff in front of industry talent spotters.

Even the Britpop royalty seems to have taken the hint: Oasis will be back in the U.S. this summer and tickets for their show at New York City’s Madison Square Garden sold out in an hour. As for the Kaiser Chiefs, their first date on their return from the U.S. will be playing a charity gig at the Royal Albert Hall. Wilson should have plenty of headroom there.

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