This week, the beardy tornado of energy that is Frank Turner will start his biggest UK tour to date, which is practically all sold out and takes in a massive show at the Shepherds Bush Empire among other. Not only that, but he’s announced that in March next year he’ll be playing an even bigger tour to even more people – in the interim he’ll be touring his arse off in the States and selling loads and loads more copies of his awesome new album. But while bands going from small to big is nothing new, it’s the way Frank did it that’s so inspiring – he’s living proof that it’s possible to not only survive but flourish in the brave new world of the music industry, no matter what vacant-stare cretins like Lily Allen say.
First, a bit of history. Frank used to be in a band called Million Dead, who toured and toured and toured until they died. They were one of those bands who meant a hell of a lot to a few people but never quite broke out of the hardcore scene. After their demise, Frank went solo, releasing an EP entitled ‘Campfire Punkrock’ – I say ‘released’, if you emailed him he’d pop one in a jiffy bag for you – and then an album on Xtra Mile called ‘Sleep Is For The Week’. So far, so normal: dude picks up an acoustic guitar, writes songs about being a bit fucked up and confused, sings them, repeat.
But the thing about ‘Sleep…’ was that it was a collection of flawed stories so perfectly rendered that it caught a lot of people’s attention. The closing track, ‘The Ballad Of Me And My Friends’ sums up so incredibly well the feeling of knowing that music is your entire life, but you’ll never be in the coolest band or ride the biggest trend wave. So when you see that video above, of Frank getting the words he sang about what it’s like to have a few mates who matter belted back at him by thousands and thousands of people, it really hits home. In ‘The Real Damage’ he sang about being hungover, not in terms of the abject pain of regret, or poeticising the perils of alcohol – but in terms of staggering around in the daylight looking for a familiar bus stop and realising your phone’s fucked. It might not sound like much, but when you listen to it and come to the conclusion that the horrible little moments in life that you thought were the shit parts to forget are actually some kind of universal bond between strangers and, really, it’s not all that bad after all, it’s incredibly comforting. That’s why people sing so loud and so hard at his shows.
During this time, Frank dialled up his touring, and after the release of his second album ‘Love Ire & Song’ hit the road with the likes of Gaslight Anthem in the UK, and was part of the Revival tour in the US featuring Ben Nicholls from Lucero, Tim Barry from Avail and Chuck Ragan from Hot Water Music. The thing about that tour was that Lucero, Avail and HWM are all legendary bands with fiercely devoted fans; HWM in particular. So for Frank to head across the pond and stand onstage with these guys and sing his songs was brave – he could probably have done a more media-friendly tour rather than one where a bunch of grizzled old punk dudes sing their hearts out – but he nailed it. I was lucky enough to see the tour when it stopped in New York City, and Frank was treated like an equal: not because of his past as a hardcore songer, but because his songs of youth and confusion and love and loss were that good.
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Then came ‘Poetry Of The Deed’, a massive tour supporting The Offspring (scoff all you want, ‘Smash’ remains a legendary album, and dismissing it as “kids’ stuff” is at best arrogant and at worst woefully misguided) and a record deal with Epitaph. Now, the Epitaph thing is quite frankly amazing for a UK artist. An American label with traditionally weak links to the homegrown market, label boss Brett ‘Bad Religion’ Gurewitz heard some of Frank’s tunes and wanted to sign him. Being the dude he is, Frank stayed on Xtra Mile over here, not out of some outdated notion of loyalty but because he has the foresight to know that it takes people like his the excellent, inspiring team of managers, friends and press people who comprise XM to treat and handle him best. He’s long had the reputation of taking no shit whatsoever, and it’s totally, entirely paid off.
So why is he such a beacon of hope? Because he showed that it’s possible to become a globally-renowned musician with barely any support from the media, save some online stuff who’d been there from the very beginning after the Million Dead days, and some enterprising Radio 1 DJs and literally no gimmicks or cheesy videos. He wrote songs from the heart and then played them to as many people as he possibly could, taking shows anywhere in the country for petrol money. And the response was phenomenal – people LOVE his music. And because they mean so much, because he doesn’t give a shit about putting himself out for public consumption – he’d be the first to admit he’s no role model, to say the least – so people accept his faults as they do their own. An alarmingly honest interviewee, Frank’s bold and brave because he isn’t afraid of making mistakes, which he has done in the past.
He has no crack management team, nor are his press reps the sleazy bastards who hassle you at every turn; he’s surrounded himself with people like him – dudes who love music and care about what they do. So he’s presented an accurate picture of himself: if you know his songs, you know Frank, and the ‘public’ respond accordingly. They buy his records and T-shirt and gig tickets because they know they’re going to get something back – devotion, and hard work. His isn’t the ephemeral, the temporary. He deals in the permanence of what matters.
It’s a shame, I guess, that working hard and meaning what you say has become some kind of secret potion for alchemising the music industry back into the black. But as long as there are rentaquote cretins wafting their way out of the nation’s radios and computer speakers and grinning emptily off the pages of our newspapers and magazines while bitching they’re not making enough cash, there will always be a need for Frank Turner. He is the antidote to bullshit – and he’s winning.