When Sir Philip Sidney wrote Arcadia in the late 16th century, he probably wasn’t banking on his work becoming an oft-cited, never-read byword for starry-eyed east London rock’n’roll urchins desperately trying to keep real life from the door. But then, avoiding the drudgery of your nine-to-five, mortgage payments and tonight’s telly is practically what the job of rock’n’roll star was invented for. In the ’60s, [a]Kinks[/a]’ Ray Davies kept it at bay by diluting it into quaint three-minute musical postcards of an England that never existed; in the ’70s The Jam spat bile in the face of the privileged; in the ’80s [a]Morrissey[/a] continued the tradition by colouring the bleak landscape of Thatcher’s greying Britain on the staggering ‘The Queen Is Dead’; meanwhile in 2004, poor old Pete Doherty shambles around, seemingly oblivious to anything outside his own crumbling Arcadian dream of a mythical Albion.
[a]The Ordinary Boys[/a]’ frontman Sam Preston is all too aware of this noble tradition of avoidance. He’s probably had his share of dead-end minimum wage jobs and spent his Saturday nights watching his mates piss their earnings up the wall. So like all young, good-looking guys with a guitar and a healthy distaste for the humdrum, he formed a band.
Except, unlike many of their peers, [a]The Ordinary Boys[/a] aren’t at all interested in the trappings of success; the clue, after all, is right there in the name. There are no songs on ‘Over The Counter Culture’ called ‘The Night I Got Slaughtered With Sadie Frost’; no, Preston writes songs with titles like ‘Weekend Revolution’ and ‘In Awe Of The Awful’. Most of the lyrics read something like ‘The List Goes On”s “The media press has become an utter mess/ The opinions have paled once more”. Clearly, ‘Over The Counter Culture’ isn’t interested in smugly taking the piss or tiptoeing around its targets; it’s out to administer a good old cheap-speed-and-chips-fuelled British-style kicking to them.
An admirable aim and all that, but does it work? Well, mostly. The title track sets the pace for pretty much everything that follows; the foul aftertaste of modern living articulated through Preston’s none-more-Limey nasal tones, simple, to-the-point melodies that carve themselves into your head, and lyrics you could spray-paint across shopping-centre walls the length and breadth of the land. When this works – as it does on early singles ‘Maybe Someday’ and ‘Talk Talk Talk’ – it’s powerful and vital enough to make you wonder why you took that McJob in the first place. When it doesn’t – see ‘Weekend Revolution’ and ‘Robots And Monkeys” faintly ridiculous ultimatum of “What do you wanna be?/ A robot or a monkey?” – Preston sounds like a 22-year-old smart-arse from Brighton delivering irony-free sermons on how to live your life.
Yet [a]The Ordinary Boys[/a] are aware of their position in the grand hierarchy of disillusioned British pop music; leave the whingeing and whining to overweight Americans in long shorts – we’re British, after all, and there’s always the bright side of life to look upon. Hence the peculiar, oh-so-British wit on display here, from the cover of [a]Specials[/a]’ ‘Little Bitch’ – a skewed portrait of the titular, bed-wetting “Ugliest creature under the sun” – to ‘Talk Talk Talk”s inspired cod-yob terrace chant of “How’s the weather?/Grey and boring!/It’s back to work on/Monday morning!”.
When the album stops striving to communicate half-baked social commentary (any ‘message’ there may be amounts to little more than the observation that modern life is, er, rubbish) and concentrates on actual songs, it’s a superb debut; confident, assured, pissed-off and, crucially – on the occasions where it reassures you that life can be something other than grey tower blocks, Giro queues, and empty cans of Tennent’s Super – something you can believe in. It’s the reason they already have a growing squadron of rabid fans calling themselves The Ordinary Army.
The tired old cliché holds that all the greatest bands create their own private world for themselves to live in. [a]The Ordinary Boys[/a]’ world is the real one, and you’re living in it right now. Consider this record the user manual.