The summer of 2002 was a strange time in East London. A time before social media, before so many of the grassroots venues had been shut down. Suddenly, rock ‘n’ roll exploded out of its late-90s, post-Brit Pop doldrums. Everywhere, kids were forming bands.
Most of the groups that burst out of this chaotic, creative melee flamed briefly then faded away. Razorlight were different.
Formed around singer/guitarist Johnny Borrell, their debut album, ‘Up All Night’ perfectly captured the incendiary energy of the squat parties and sweatbox venues of that original East London scene. It also carried a couple of breakthrough, era defining hits, including ‘Golden Touch’ and ‘Somewhere Else’.
With their self-titled follow-up, Razorlight truly made the leap onto the international stage. Lead single, ‘In The Morning’, reached number three in the UK, and 'America’ went straight to number one. The band headlined festivals and toured the world – Johnny appeared on the cover of Vogue and enjoyed a playfully fractious relationship with the national press. A third album, ‘Slipway Fires’, provided top-ten singles across the UK and Europe.
But, across the music scene, the original fire of that 2000s guitar explosion eventually burned itself out – to be replaced by “landfill indie”. In a riotous 2016 interview with Vice, Borrell himself dissected Razorlight’s contradictory part in that story. Cutting edge music abandoned guitars in favour of grime and dance. Borrell himself formed a solo project exploring esoteric elements of blues, world music and psychedelic jazz.
This has all left a gaping space at the top of British music for ambitious, fun, inspiring rock music. It is this space that Razorlight have come storming back to fill with their explosively exuberant new album, Olympus Sleeping. As Johnny describes it, ‘I made this record in a spirit of nothing but enjoyment. This album is my very pure love letter to a certain type of music – the music that first inspired so many people to form and follow bands.’
In fact, the first voice you hear on the album isn’t even Borrell’s. At the start of opener “Got to Let The Good Times Back Into Your Life”, we hear Adam Green of the Moldy Peaches (another oft-misunderstood early-2000s band), quote his waywardly genius film adaptation of Aladin….’Genie, it’s Aladin – print me a Razorlight album that doesn’t totally suck.’
And the band promptly delivers. “Got To Let The Good Times…” fizzes, pounds and bursts the album into life – leading straight into the slick grooves and jangling hooks of ‘Razorchild’ and ‘Brighton Pier’. Before we’re nine minutes in, we’re reminded exactly of what always set Razorlight apart – that unique ear for a smashing pop melody, and the energetic focus in performance that almost no one else since has matched.
But the ironic humour of that Aladin quote also symbolises something new – a hard-won maturity and wit in songwriting. Johnny casts a wry look at the music business in “Iceman”, quipping about playing “weddings and bar mitzvahs”. In ‘Olympus Sleeping’ he cries, “Hubris, hubris….we always kill our attractions”. Could this be Borrell giving a sly, self-deprecating wink to some of his more outrageous interactions with the press over the years? Well…maybe. The album draws down with a sublime pop chorus insisting that ultimately, there are “no answers”.
The other element that consistently set Razorlight apart was simply that they always played with groove. Landfill indie was leaden – Razorlight’s engine was always that twitchy, energetic Police-influenced backbeat. For Olympus Sleeping, Johnny worked closely with guitarist, David Ellis, and the band were joined on drums by Martin Chambers of The Pretenders. Johnny succinctly sums up how this collaboration came about: "I ran into Martin and just thought, gosh we've been ripping off his playing for so many years, why not just actually ask the man himself!'
Of all Razorlight’s various line-up changes over the years, this is by far the boldest. But the effects of having that legendary talent behind the kit immediately become blindingly apparent. This album sizzles with groove – its heart beating with an irresistible, live-action, rock ‘n’ roll energy.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on standout track ‘Carry Yourself’ – a thumping blend of slick rhythms and epic hooks which should become the anthem not just of next summer – but several summers to come.
The Killers and Foo Fighters are still going strong in America. Arctic Monkeys seem to have ditched Sheffield for LA. Britain needs a rock ‘n’ roll band that can get up on the main stage of a summer festival and properly do the business. This is that band.
Olympus Sleeping is everything we always loved about Razorlight – the electric energy of the first album, the pop-rock craftsmanship of the second and the lyrical ambition of the third. The fact that their last release came before music streaming had even been invented – yet they still command over a million monthly listeners on Spotify just goes to show there is a need for this band out there.
There comes a moment at which one has to let go of the past and just enjoy a consummately talented British rock band doing their thing. At some point you simply have step back and let the good times back into your life.