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Nihilistic ear-worms

Franz Ferdinand, the band that changed the rock song

By Robert Forster 
Cover: December 2005 - January 2006December 2005 - January 2006Medium length read
 

If this album review was a Franz Ferdinand song it would almost be over by now. These boys don’t hang about. Short, sharp songs, guitar riffs bouncing all over the place, storming choruses, a deft cultural reference or two and then they’re off, down the road, laughing in their tight, coloured clothing, thinking we’ve done it again. Another ball of guitar hooks, another broken-plated song – glued back together our way.

Franz Ferdinand don’t just come from anywhere. They’re from Glasgow, a place steeped in indie rock legend. Orange Juice. Aztec Camera. The Jesus and Mary Chain. Teenage Fanclub. Belle & Sebastian. Every four or five years this town has managed to produce a major rock band. It’s a scene keen on its own history, a town that loves pop, country, black music (old and new) and anything even vaguely camp or obscure.

The Strokes’ rock revolution of 2001 was starting to get very boring. Identikit bands were popping up all over the place and locking into the formula: rock-and-roll pop songs cut clean, new wave intentions, late-’70s street fashion and a fixation with New York as the new/old underground rock capital. Franz Ferdinand landed in early 2004, adding a much-needed dose of cut and suave. They were art-school boys, not pretend ones but the real thing from Glasgow, who lived and played in a place called The Chateau, who named themselves after an assassinated Austrian archduke, who mixed post-punk Scottish nous with an eclectic combing of ’80s influences. They seemed new and exciting. More importantly, they had songs, the best bunch of cleanskinned rock and pop songs since The Strokes’ first album, and masterwork, Is This It.

The instigator, singer and guitarist Alex Kapranos, is older than the other three members. He’d been floating round the edges of the Glasgow scene for at least ten years until he finally facilitated rock’s magic combination: great rock songs and the right people to play them. Once he had that, they were off. Their self-titled debut record won every album-ofthe- year award going, and has set the fashion and musical agenda ever since. Their coda, their greeting card to a wall of waiting journalists, was: “We’re making music for girls to dance to.” They brought back the spectre of slinky sex and the disco, missing in indie rock-land since the very early ’80s when the great forebears of all things wonderful, Orange Juice, were talking about combining Chic and The Velvet Underground, and when New York’s Ze Records was trying to marry art and the dance floor.

Given all this – and given their tiny record label, given their art-school approach, given Glasgow – Franz Ferdinand were guaranteed to sell no more than about 10,000 records. They had something else up their sleeve, though. They could write rock songs. For all the newness that they promised and promoted in image and interview, they had a link to The Strokes. Rock riffs get you out of the ghetto. Rock riffs fill concert halls and reach row 150 at the rock festival. The Germans call it ohrwurm, or ear-worms – big, compulsive, brain-lodging riffs – and these lodged not in 10,000 brains but in millions.

You Could Have It So Much Better arrives only 18 months after Franz Ferdinand. This is a smart move, deflating the expectation and pressure that can cripple a band working on the follow-up to a successful first album. It also gives the impression of a band on the move and not afraid to play its second card. It’s a much rockier record, with tougher production. It doesn’t draw breath until song seven when the first ballad comes in, the very pretty “Eleanor, Put Your Boots On”. More rock songs follow and are eventually broken up by “Fade Together”, another ballad, similar to the first, in that it channels psychedelic-era Beatles surprisingly well. There are perhaps two rock songs too many but all are strong. Kapranos dispenses his “I’m on the road” wisdom from the hip, and in a voice edged with ice. Some songs last only two minutes, long enough to showcase the band’s sound: adventurous but solid bass and drums; tightly arranged and highly melodic guitar riffs; and a chameleon-like singer, in Kapranos, who can sound pleading, demanding, camp, grand and snotty.

So what do Franz Ferdinand add to the rock story? Their main trick is to challenge the shape of the rock song through tempo change. They bravely splice their songs and career off in other directions. “Jacqueline”, the first song on their first album, starts out as a plaintive acoustic ballad and skews into a howling rock beast. “Take Me Out”, their breakthrough single, starts as one song, almost stops, then re-starts as another. Their latest single “Do You Want To” – opening line: “When I woke up tonight / I said I’m going to make somebody love me” – skilfully rearranges all the vital parts of the standard hit record. Franz Ferdinand have willingly, with a mad film editor’s glee, cut their work. On the fringes of underground rock this may not seem like a startling invention, but it’s amazing how linear and predictable most commercial and indie rock is. When you’re selling millions of albums, and when your singles and videos are on big radio and MTV, these shifts, these new directions in which a rock song can go, mark Franz Ferdinand out as something fresh and very distinctive.

The last track on You Could Have It So Much Better is called “Outsiders”. Suddenly the riff-o-rama of the previous 12 songs stops. It glides on rhythm: a bubbly bass, a glorious synth line, a funky groove. It sounds like nothing else on the record. It’s out to please itself. The lyric goes:

We’ve seen some change

But we’re still outsiders

If everybody’s here

Then hell knows

We ride alone.

 

Go boys. Go.

About the author Robert Forster

Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.

 
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