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Elbow: "we're prog rock without the solos"

Elbow
(Image credit: Loudhailer)

Guy Garvey, lead singer of Elbow, once described his band as “prog rock without the solos”. If the only Elbow song you’ve ever heard is One Day Like This – an anthem so ubiquitous that the Queen probably knows the words – then the “prog” tag may come as a surprise. But a deep dive into Elbow’s five studio albums reveals that the Mancunians revel in experimental sounds, non-linear arrangements and big, conceptual ideas.

“We count ourselves as progressive because we go where the music takes us and we work themes throughout albums,” explains Garvey. “When I said, ‘Prog rock without the solos,’ nobody was talking about progressive rock; it was a dirty word. It was in the late 90s. And yet so much of the music I was listening to – and that was being featured in the music press – was absolutely inspired by the work of Yes, Genesis and King Crimson. There was no denying it, and yet nobody was talking about it. So when I spoke up for our prog influences, it was as much to buck that trend as anything.” 

Case in point: Radiohead have never cited Pink Floyd as an influence, which Garvey calls “ridiculous”. By contrast, Garvey uses his weekly BBC6 radio show to regularly share his deep and abiding love of Genesis with his listeners. The singer, born in Manchester in 1974, was so thoroughly exposed to his sister’s Genesis records from an early age that they were his nursery rhymes. Nursery Cryme as crib music? Genius! 

Elbow

(Image credit: Press)

Selling England By The Pound is probably my favourite album,” he says. “Another is Trick Of The Tail, and the live version of Carpet Crawlers from Seconds Out, which has Phil Collins singing on it, I prefer to the original.” 

Garvey had developed a wide taste in music by the time he met guitarist Mark Potter at sixth-form college in 1990. He was invited to join Potter’s band, which included bass player Pete Turner and drummer Richard Jupp. Potter’s younger brother, Craig, was later recruited as the keyboardist. Right from the start, Garvey impressed his love of prog rock upon the others. 

“I became obsessed with Yes around the time I joined the band,” says Garvey. “I remember the first time I met Mark, I played him lots of songs. I’ll never forget it: he got a job at a local restaurant – he’s quite a good cook. He said, ‘I get a wage this weekend. I want you to take me into town and buy me a record collection.’ The first one I bought him was [1972 Yes album] Close To The Edge, just because of the guitar work on it. I remember really falling in love with Siberian Khatru from that record. It’s such a great one to rock out to and it’s the reason why Craig played an organ in the first place.” 

It took a long while for those progressive sounds to percolate into the band’s output. The fledgling group, named Mr. Soft, initially settled on a “chilled funk” sound inspired by a shared love of Jimi Hendrix, Sly & The Family Stone and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Mr. Soft spent the 1990s gigging, but record company A&R scouts were stingy about handing over their business cards. 

In hindsight, bassist Pete Turner summed up the band’s early work with the following thoughtfully considered critique: “It was shite.”

“We’d tried again and again to get a record deal and had taken plenty of advice and never gotten anywhere,” says Garvey. “That was when we decided to do what we want, unequivocally.”

Elbow

(Image credit: Press)

To commemorate a fresh start, the band renamed itself. Its new moniker was inspired by a line in The Singing Detective, in which a character says that ‘elbow’ is the most sensuous word in the English language. (Word of advice: Garvey does not recommend that you whisper  “elbow” into your loved one’s ear as a seduction technique.) 

By the time Elbow released their debut, Asleep In The Back, on V2 records in 2001, they had developed a sound influenced by trip-hop acts such as Massive Attack and Portishead, and post-rock bands such as Talk Talk and Radiohead. 

Asleep In The Back also includes a subcutaneous layer of progressive rock. Can’t Stop, Little Beast, Coming Second and Bitten By The Tailfly utilise unsettling discordance, suffocating drum patterns and jagged swipes of guitar to underscore the claustrophobic melancholy in Garvey’s vocals. Newborn, a poignant tale of an elderly couple facing their final years together, takes its cues from Genesis’s Entangled

Entangled goes on this beautiful, sonic exploration – haunting and grand – because it is a compact song that goes and does something very special,” says Garvey. 

Newborn features an extended coda, which builds from the subdued swirls and eddies of an organ to a fireball eruption of guitar and a feverish vocal. 

“That was a real lament from the soul. It’s a very earnest, apocalyptic love song and it doesn’t work without the second half.”

Asleep In The Back was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. The single Asleep In The Back cracked the Top 20 singles charts. Album sales, though, were modest. The follow-up, Cast Of Thousands (2003), didn’t fare much better. It boasted some fine moments (Fugitive Motel, Switching Off), but became ‘the difficult second album’. 

“We didn’t have the songs,” admits Garvey today. But he wasn’t stuck for inspiration when it came to writing his typically literate lyrics for Leaders Of The Free World (2005). Blindsided by the end of his romance with radio DJ Edith Bowman, Garvey’s nakedly emotional singing seemed to burble up from his bruised heart. Musically, Elbow refined their signature use of minimalist organic textures. 

Elbow

(Image credit: Press)

Though the press tended to make facile comparisons between Elbow and contemporaries such as Coldplay, Travis and Snow Patrol, Leaders Of The Free World was hardly commercial stadium rock. Tracks such as Station Approach, Picky Bugger and Mexican Standoff exemplify Elbow’s love of undulating arrangements that often eschew the traditional verse-chorus-verse structure. 

One early fan was Marillion guitarist Steve Rothery. “Elbow are one of my favourite bands,” he tells Prog. “It’s great to hear such intelligent music in the mainstream. Guy Garvey has one of the most soulful voices I’ve heard and Craig Potter’s production is perfect. It’s really good to hear music with such a dynamic range again.”

Yet Elbow’s attempt to nudge their way into the big leagues stalled. The band were dropped by their record company. Undeterred, the five Mancunians set about creating their most ambitious album statement, The Seldom Seen Kid. Though it’s not quite a concept album, there’s an overarching theme about the costly pursuit of material success. The epic, orchestral centrepiece The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver, exemplifies the album’s message. 

“My brother-in-law met a tower crane driver who, at the beginning of the evening, was showing off how much money he got paid,” explains Garvey. “He had a television up there and the best view of the city wherever he was working. But it turned out that it took him so long to get up there first thing in the morning, and so long to come down, that he didn’t actually meet anyone he worked with. He was consequently very lonely. His story is a good metaphor for ambition leaving you lonely, especially as you sacrifice love and relationships for it.”

Musically, The Seldom Seen Kid utilises the sort of volume dynamics that Garvey says are more common in classical music than rock music. For instance, Starlings is punctuated with unexpected blasts of brass that aren’t for the faint of heart or ear. Some Riot seems to seesaw unsteadily from side to side as if its cellos were seasick. When the stomp rocker Grounds For Divorce explodes midway through, the musical shrapnel seems to ricochet across the speakers. 

Like previous Elbow albums, TSSK weaves unusual sounds into its fabric. “Quite often, one of us will have a sound in mind, not knowing how to make that sound,” says Garvey. “For instance, with The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver, that came from a concept. I wanted a sound that sounds like a tower crane moving across the skyline. That’s where we began. It’s hidden in the mix, but there’s a very wobbly, peculiar sort of ‘bong’. It’s almost xylophonic. 

“I was saying, ‘It’s got to sound a little bit like a seatbelt sign bong on an aircraft, but it’s got to be deeper than that and it has to have a soulful tone to it.’ We ran around the studio hitting things. We found this 70s glass lampshade – quite ugly, I don’t know what it was doing in our studio – and someone hit it and not only was it the perfect sound, it was in the right key!”

Elbow signed to Polydor, who had little idea that The Seldom Seen Kid would become a Mercury Music Prize winner. The album shifted over a million copies thanks to its euphoric single One Day Like This, which has soundtracked countless weddings and nature documentaries, along with Apple product launches and award ceremonies for Sir Bradley Wiggins. It’s a wonder the song isn’t a staple at Last Night Of The Proms by now.

“It kind of became the national anthem in the UK,” marvels Garvey. “It was written from a very real place. I was falling in love with my girlfriend, Emma Jane.”

Elbow group shot 2021 on a stairwell

(Image credit: Press)

The newly crowned ‘people’s band’ charted a similar musical course on 2011’s Build A Rocket Boys!. It’s a relatively quieter album that emphasises drizzle-light drumming, plucked acoustic guitars and plangent piano chords – “very minimal and spacious,” explains Garvey. 

Build A Rocket Boys! is far from simple music, though. Elbow even looked to a 16th-century composer for inspiration. 

“Looking at the roots of folk music led me back to Thomas Tallis and we decided to use that kind of harmonic sequence in it,” says the singer. 

The album’s eight-minute opener The Birds is dominated by a pulsar-like keyboard figure and goes supernova during its rousing outro. It’s Elbow’s proggiest song to date. 

“It’s a long-lost love affair from the point of view of a really old man, which is why the reprise of The Birds has a really old man singing the song,” says Garvey. “When the synths and the strings kick in toward the end, you can’t help but be in the moment.”

The Birds may well be a precursor to the direction of an upcoming album, set to include several lengthy songs. 

“I want it to have the impact of The Seldom Seen Kid without its pop sensibilities,” says Garvey with the same excitement as when Boddingtons Brewery teamed with Elbow to launch a line of Build A Rocket Boys! beer.

“The record we’re currently writing has at least five or six pieces of music that go through at least three stages,” reveals Garvey. “We’ve got one at the moment called This Blue World, which goes into two pieces of music. The working titles are Slow Moving Water and Fast Moving Water. “

Is it time to file Elbow next to ELP?

“It’s probably going to be our most progressive album,” reveals the singer. “That word is coming up a lot in the studio.” 

Garvey adds that critics of progressive rock tend to dismissively deem it nerdy, classical-influenced music born in English public schools.

“It’s also about freedom of expression,” concludes Garvey. “It’s a really passionate, intense form of music that’s quite often fun.” 

This article originally appeared in issue 38 of Prog Magazine.