Why The Struts are the rock'n'roll band Britain needs

What happened when glam-pop rock’n’rollers The Struts came, saw and conquered at Camden's legendary Dingwalls venue

A photograph of The Struts on stage at Dingwalls

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On July 5, 1976, Ramones played a seminal gig at Dingwalls in Camden, North London. Exactly 40 years later to the night, The Struts are hoping to make history at the same venue. Only they’ll be doing it not with minimalist New York punk, but a mix of glam flamboyance and sheer hard pop-rock attack.

“Young bands think it’s cheesy to ask audiences to clap along,” sniffs Luke Spiller, a 70s Queen-era Spitting Image puppet of Freddie Mercury brought to life, talking before the gig in the dark of Dingwalls while outside it’s gloriously bright sunshine. “We have the opposite ethos. I want them to work as hard as I do and make them leave dripping wet with a big smile on their face.”

Their clothes – mostly designer rock star chic – are enough to induce mile-wide grins. Aberystwyth drum wonder Gethin Davies is wearing a black leather tunic, snakeskin Jeffery West boots and a T-shirt bearing “some Aztec shit”. Devizes bass creator Jed Elliott appears to have stepped in from Oasis ’94, all shaggy bob, white denim jacket, black jeans and John Varvatos boots. Guitarist Adam Slack looks about as louche as anyone from Derby can rightfully expect, with his blond ringlets and assorted jewellery.

Then there’s Bristol-born Spiller, a picture in his gold mermaid-skin boots, Michael Kors watch, array of rings and H&M blouse. “I’m the one who really brings the attire,” announces the frontman, the first rocker since Mercury to receive style tips from Zandra Rhodes. He adds, proudly, “Apart from my shoes, it’s all women’s clothing.” Still, this is nothing compared to what he’ll have on later.

“Our stage outfits are a step up,” warns Elliott. “These are our going‑to-the-airport outfits.”

They’re at the airport a lot these days, flitting as they do between Britain and the States, where, Spiller says, “it’s like going into a time machine and fast forwarding a year from now”, such is the size of the audiences over there. Still, they’re just “relieved it’s finally coming together” – it’s not long since Spiller was cleaning the toilets at his parents’ rest home. “That was my job,” he laughs when Classic Rock reminds him of the episode of The Inbetweeners where James Buckley’s character Jay does a stint at an old people’s home and decides to perk it up. “Only without the bit where he masturbates in various rooms.”

You’d never know his parents were devoutly religious: his father was a “folk-gospel” singer-songwriter and his mother used to sing backing vocals on his recordings. Rock music was a rare commodity chez Spiller. Do they think he’s communing with the devil now?

“No,” he replies, “although they did subconsciously close themselves off from a lot of popular music when they were bringing me up.”

Not that he’s rebelling against them. Rather, The Struts are a reaction to “too-cool-for-school young British bands” and “the ongoing trend to not give the audience what they really want: entertainment”. He cites Catfish And The Bottlemen as an example of a boring, by-the-numbers outfit: “Four guys walking straight out of Top Shop playing Foo Fighters B-sides,” as he puts it. “They’re so safe.” The Struts, on the other hand, “are risky – look how we dress,” ventures Spiller, and he’s got a point. He believes The Struts’ record label are equally audacious. “To sign, support and manage this band you have to have a very big fucking pair of testicles. Some people don’t have the bollocks.”

Interscope aren’t The Struts’ only big-league, big-balled supporters. There’s also Steven Tyler, with whom Spiller recently spent two weeks holidaying in Maui. “I went there with my girlfriend,” he casually says of supermodel Laura Cartier Millon, “and we were snorkelling and we ended up in his swimming pool and hanging out with him.”

Apparently, Tyler was more excited by Spiller than vice versa. “He was more of a fan, grilling me, than I was about him,” he enthuses, explaining that the Aerosmith singer didn’t make the connection at first. “He’d watched us on Late Night With Jimmy Kimmel and apparently he turned round to his girlfriend [Aimee Ann Preston] and said, ‘That is what the music industry needs.’ So I’m there in his back garden and he’s like, ‘Is that the fuckin’ singer with The Struts? Aimee! We’ve got the singer with The fuckin’ Struts in the pool!’”

Two hours later, “the singer with The fuckin’ Struts” (™) is showing a sell-out audience how to engage the attention of rock legends. Arriving onstage to the theme music from ancient BBC TV sports programme Grandstand, Spiller is sheer Bolan-esque pizzazz in his sparkly gold jacket and garish make‑up that you can see from right at the back of the venue.

The band launch into Roll Up, the Sweet/Supergrass amalgam of your dreams, as Spiller invites the audience to ‘come take my hand’. He looks shimmery and translucent, like all good rock frontmen should, while the band launch into a series of early multiple climaxes. It’s only the first song and already Spiller is Going For It: “Camden! Are you ready to rock’n’roll with The Struts? Gimme a ‘yeah’!” As he told Classic Rock earlier, size doesn’t matter when it comes to concert attendance figures. “Close your eyes and it’s 30,000 people,” he said of his attitude, which is to approach every gig like it’s Altamont 1969: an earth-shattering event. “That’s my ethos,” he said. “I can’t really perform any other way.”

Tonight, every song is a show-stopping finale. There are mass handclaps and the audience know every word. These are songs scientifically designed for maximum thrills. As Slack put it, “They were made in a laboratory and it took a long time to get the chemicals just right. We sweated over them.”

The hard graft has produced a slew of effortless anthems that are the children of the evolution from glam to Britpop. Spiller’s guilty pleasure is Gary Glitter, although he justifies his enjoyment of the reviled rocker by focusing on the Glitter Band’s “fantastic studio techniques: the double-track drumming and guitars tuned to a single chord – all the stuff that gave their music an edge”.

Born to boogie and eclectic warriors, The Struts’ assimilation of anthemic rock through the ages is evident, from the swagger of These Times Are Changing, with its Rolling Stones-circa-Miss You ‘ooh-oohs’ (each song has a hook that snags) to the chant-worthy ballroom blitz of The Ol’ Switcheroo, which leads young and old alike to start waving their arms in the air like they just don’t care.

It’s so hot in here that Spiller will later favourably compare the temperature to a recent Stateside gig in Nashville, but nothing’s going to stop him sashaying and pirouetting around, although he might secretly wish he was dressed as spartanly as Davies in his simple vest.

Every audience-participation box is ticked. Handclaps: check. Call and response: check. Soon, he will even order everyone to sit on the floor and the assembled – a hardened London crowd, remember – will duly obey. Kiss This is one of several Struts numbers that should, on their ultimate UK breakthrough, necessitate re-releasing: it demands daytime radio ubiquity. Epic ballad Mary Go Round sees hundreds of lit‑up iPhones held aloft. Slack’s guitar solo is so searingly perfect you can imagine Brian May playing it on the roof of Buckingham Palace. They might not quite have the pomp and preposterousness of Queen, but they’re getting there.

Dirty Sexy Money – in terms of music and language, these are the root integers of rock – is “shit-hot”; so much so that it forces the first Spiller costume change of the night. Young Stars is the one for all the young dudes – Bowie would love it. Put Your Money On Me has the perkiness and punch of power pop: imagine Cheap Trick if they’d named themselves after attending a Slade concert. [They did – 70s Ed.]

Spiller disappears and re‑emerges wearing outfit number three, before instructing us to get out our mobile phones: he’s the anti-Adele. For Where Did She Go, the band lock into a groovy riff ahead of its terrace chant chorus. Then Spiller starts channelling the spirit of Ramones: “Are you ready to go out with a bang? I want to make history tonight at Dingwalls. I want to make this the best fucking gig these walls have ever seen!” Suddenly, 500 people are down on the ground – it’s a truly bizarre sight to behold. Finally, back on their feet, the devoted down the front prepare to carry their new lord and master, his arms outstretched and head back as he strikes a Jesus Christ pose. And then, perhaps to puncture the pomposity, or maybe because they just like the tune, the band leave the stage to the strains of the theme to Only Fools And Horses. “Because they’re so English,” explains Davies when Classic Rock wonders why they use old TV theme tunes to soundtrack their hello/goodbyes.

A good old-fashioned after-show lig, this tiny enclosed space is full of chattering record company types, pouting model girlfriends and triumphant band members bearing towels over their shoulders. Oh, and a bottle of Lanson, which Spiller manages to burst over all and sundry.

How was it for him? “It was alright,” deadpans the singer, who says he was “that close to throwing up” from the heat. Then he stops kidding. “No, it was a fantastic show,” he says. “I’ve never seen a crowd like that.”

He made a mission statement from the stage. How serious was he? “Deadly serious. It’s about time bands started to have fun with the audience again and stopped being so self-conscious.”

Back in the day, the likes of Oasis and the Stone Roses would make claims for world domination… “World domination is what anyone wants,” he muses sensibly while all around him is jollity and noise. “But the industry is different from when Oasis made those claims. I’d like to see them make them in 2016.”

But surely The Struts aren’t doing this to be moderately successful? “No,” he replies. “I want to be the biggest band in the world.”

Is that achievable? “It depends whether they play us on the radio,” he says. “They didn’t play Queen for the first two albums – till Seven Seas Of Rhye, from their second album – so that gives you a bit of hope.”

If Queen are role models, so too are The Darkness. “Their debut album is huge and explosive, nothing short of a masterpiece,” he contends of a record that belongs in The Struts’ private pantheon alongside Bat Out Of Hell, (What’s The Story) Morning Glory and Exile On Main St. “But they fucked their chance up with copious amounts of cocaine. Justin Hawkins put on weight, drank too much and spiralled out of control. It’s something we’re all aware of: you really only get one time frame in which to create your foundation and the rest of your career.

“It’s when you get somewhere you dreamed of, that’s when potentially things fall apart,” he continues, “but at the moment we’re still focused and have a long way to go up the ladder.”

How are they going to avoid fucking their own chance up? “We already had our drug phase,” Slack joins in. “Besides, we’re too busy for all that.”

Do they not feel an obligation to match the bacchanalian excess of their illustrious forebears? “These are different times,” argues Spiller as his old lady, Ms Cartier Millon, listens in intently. “I highly doubt they could match our promo schedule. I’d like to fucking see Led Zeppelin going to three radio stations and performing acoustically three times a day, and then going onstage and doing it all over again. Bands have to whore themselves out these days.”

But there’s no time for negativity; tonight is all about celebration, and glorying in the magic of The Struts. As Spiller declares of his performance, “I felt like Apollo appearing on his own turf.”

Apollo Creed, the fictional boxer, or Apollo the Olympian deity?

“The god of the sun,” he says, his poker face revealing just a hint of his impressive gnashers.

Somewhere, Freddie Mercury – and, quite conceivably, Joey Ramone – is smiling.

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Paul Lester

Paul Lester is the editor of Record Collector. He began freelancing for Melody Maker in the late 80s, and was later made Features Editor. He was a member of the team that launched Uncut Magazine, where he became Deputy Editor. In 2006 he went freelance again and has written for The Guardian, The Times, the Sunday Times, the Telegraph, Classic Rock, Q and the Jewish Chronicle. He has also written books on Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Bjork, The Verve, Gang Of Four, Wire, Lady Gaga, Robbie Williams, the Spice Girls, and Pink.