The Man Who Turns 20

The Man Who Turns 20

“What you have now is something like Limp Bizkit on one side of the cliff and a lot of pop stuff on the other side,” said Travis frontman Fran Healy to music critic Robert Hilburn in the summer of 2000 on the eve of their biggest headlining show in America at that point, at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles. “We’re down in the valley and we’re trying to say, ‘Come on down and check us out.'”

Healy had the lay of the land, but his statement wasn’t necessarily disapproving of America’s then-steady diet of candy and Korn-sters. Travis were just coming from a different mainstream. Back home in Britain, they had hit their stride in the latter half of the 1990s, a period when popular guitar music was swept up in the rapid rise of Oasis and then left hanging by their middling middle act. More specifically, Travis hit their stride with the release of their second album, The Man Who, on May 24, 1999 — 20 years ago today — arriving just in time, and with just the right sound, to serve as Advil for the Britpop hangover. 

The story of Travis is not exactly the stuff of Behind The Music. They have always come across as nice fellas, and their ‘good-humored, mild-mannered university pals’ persona somehow became a model for Brit rock upstarts that followed them such as Coldplay and Starsailor. They were portrayed in interviews as stable in their own romantic relationships as well as in their songwriting partnership with one another. Their loyalty to one another as bandmates was taken almost too seriously. Healy once described playing with another band live in terms of infidelity. “It felt horrible,” he told the Glasgow Herald in 2001, about briefly taking the stage with Remy Zero. “Unfaithful, like I’d slept with somebody. Weird. Dirty.”

Quotes like that aside, Travis usually fell on the right side of cloying, even if sometimes the line was fine. In 2000, the initial impression created by Good Feeling, their debut album, with its rowdy group shouts and semi-satiric proclamations, was a thing of the past. No one had accused them of being too sensitive when Good Feeling strode in back in 1997 with tracks titled “All I Wanna Do Is Rock” and “U16 Girls.” “All I Wanna Do Is Rock,” their distinctive first single, was also one of Travis’ more conflicted moments. The song was a Cupid-struck stomper built around a quiet, contemplative guitar progression overdriven almost against its will. It was about wanting to rock, and ultimately it did so despite its apprehensions.

After The Man Who gently conquered the UK to the tune of over two million copies sold, Good Feeling was recast as an anomalous initial step. Certainly, Good Feeling had its idiosyncrasies; from the jaunty tack piano solo in the title track, to “Tied to the 90’s,” a single that celebrated and skewered nostalgia for the decade three years before it was even over. Travis were seen by more than a few critics as another member of the Oasis league, an impression that was solidified when Noel Gallagher started dropping their name and taking them out on tour. The connection was there, but this wasn’t necessarily the context that Travis saw themselves in either.

On that US tour in the summer of 2000, they were also interviewed by Keith Cameron for a cover story in the NME. They spoke repeatedly about the importance of radio, including its influence on their own listening habits. At one point Healy declares he hasn’t heard any great indie bands recently, and Cameron challenges him on his sources. His reply is simple: the radio. “I don’t buy records,” Healy claims, an almost shocking assertion for someone in his position. “I’ll rely on the radio to give me what I want and I don’t hear it.”

“Radio’s the most important medium,” bassist Dougie Payne had stated earlier. One reads this and imagines that while other aspiring young Scottish rockers were wearing out their copies of Raw Power and The Velvet Underground & Nico, the boys who would be Travis were spinning their AM/FM dials down to nubs.

Cameron referred to their perspective as the band’s “arch populist’s musical vision” and called it “commendably un-elitist,” but it didn’t mean their tastes were shallowly informed. Healy’s quote about the current state of radio went on: “All I hear is junk music which has been supplied by corporations. I do believe that if something’s shit hot it will get there eventually and I will hear it on the radio.” The band’s mindset wasn’t that whatever gets played on the radio must be good, it was that good music is the truth, and the truth will out.

Skeptics, especially those who follow indie rock, could find such beliefs naive. There was something almost idealistically socialist behind the idea that it should be the responsibility of radio to give pop music fans what they need as well as what they want (and what the major labels wanted to push). Evidence that this was possible had been seen earlier in the 1990s with the radio success and commercial ascendance of bands such as Nirvana, R.E.M. and, yes, Oasis. Travis were coming around in a different era, though; one where the UK’s pop identity was almost too wide open, and where the US mainstream had become clogged with those nu metallers and manufactured teen groups.

Healy and the band saw radio not only as a crucial cultural public square, they also attributed their ability to reach its audience down to it entirely. “The one thing that changed between the first record and the second is that radio decided to play Travis,” Healy claimed. “Unanimously. Radio 1, Capital FM, every single radio station in the UK played ‘Why Does It Always Rain On Me’….And the first album they didn’t, at all. The success of all the singles was totally down to radio.”

Their Top 40 infatuation illuminates how Travis saw their music fitting into its time and place. Good Feeling got them lumped in with the “Noelrock” wave, but what they shared with Oasis was not Northern bravado, nor was it (despite the title of that first single) a mission to keep the flame for real rock ‘n’ roll burning. What they shared with Oasis was a bootstrap education in mainstream hits, an ingrained appreciation of the biggest and the best, not an aesthete’s predilection for the artsy and obscure. They, too, loved the Beatles: The first incarnation of Travis in the early 1990s was called Glass Onion.

So when “Writing To Reach You,” the first single to herald the forthcoming The Man Who, name-checked “Wonderwall,” it was not a chummy nod from one of the pack to the alpha dog. It was Healy as one of the millions of radio listeners who couldn’t escape the ubiquity of one of the era’s biggest hits: “The radio is playing all the usual/ And what’s a wonderwall anyway?” There’s a tinge of frustration in Healy’s voice as he considers the difficulty of communicating clearly with another person while a song that doesn’t exactly make sense mocks him in the background.

Not only does “Writing To Reach You” mention “Wonderwall” by name, it borrows the chords. Given how Oasis built some of their best songs on pilfered riffs, it is poetic justice that one of their signature tunes would be repurposed for the commercial breakthrough of another band. But Travis’ manner of homage here was different from the way Noel Gallagher would pinch from T. Rex and other 1970s glam rock bands of his youth. Symbolically, it’s an acknowledgement that “Wonderwall” is so ever-present that Healy simply can’t stop it from invading his own songwriting process.

“Writing To Reach You” isn’t the only time “Wonderwall” comes up on The Man Who. “Slide Show,” the album’s other bookend (not counting the hidden bonus track “Blue Flashing Light”), pulls the curtain back even further. “‘Cause there is no design for life/ There’s no devil’s haircut in your mind/ There is not a wonderwall/ To climb or step around,” Healy assures in a near-whisper. This chorus almost certainly dates the writing of “Slide Show” back to the summer of 1996 when “Wonderwall,” Manic Street Preachers’ “A Design For Life,” and Beck’s newly released Odelay were getting frequent airplay. Though it isn’t a concept album, with a few more plot points it could have been The Man Who Tuned Into Radio 1’s Evening Session.

The Man Who was not an instant smash in the UK. Neither was it in America, where it wouldn’t be released until 10 months later. In both places, especially Britain, fortune turned on the good luck of a song about bad luck. A month after The Man Who came out, Travis were playing a midday slot on the Other Stage at that summer’s Glastonbury Festival. The otherwise sunny afternoon was suddenly interrupted by a downpour as they began playing “Why Does It Always Rain On Me?” The rain then let up as soon as the song was over.

“We got back to London at about 10pm,” Healy remembered in a 2017 interview with Music Week. “I switched Glastonbury on BBC Two and they were all talking about Travis! That was the tipping point — everything went weird after that.” The band had been gifted their own piece of mythology, and the very next year when Travis came back to the festival, this time graduating to the main Pyramid Stage, Healy introduced “Why Does It Always Rain On Me?” with a retelling of the previous year’s timely cloudburst.

“Why Does It Always Rain On Me?” would be the lead single to push The Man Who when it finally came out in the US. In the UK it came third, following “Writing To Reach You” and second single “Driftwood.” (The “And you really didn’t think it would happen” line in the latter’s bridge sounds quite close to the “It really really really could happen” chorus of Blur’s 1995 single “The Universal,” but, as with the lyrical similarity between “Why Does It Always Rain On Me?” and the Loft’s “Why Does the Rain” single from 1984, it could just be coincidence.) Those three and “Turn,” the fourth and final single from the album, were all mellower than most of the singles taken from Good Feeling. On The Man Who, they were the energetic numbers.

“Travis’ second album shows that Healy and his sidekicks secretly wanted to play contemplative, semi-acoustic songs about a broken love affair as much to, ahem, rock out,” was writer Neil Spencer’s verdict in his review for the Observer. This change of direction sat better with some critics than with others. In his book Britpop!, music writer John Harris felt Good Feeling had intelligence and promise, but The Man Who “found a rather less interesting niche, delivering gentle ballads of redemption that seemed tailor-made for a vast, cross-generational audience.” By far the most unrestrained song the album is “Blue Flashing Light,” a harrowing story of domestic abuse spat into a storm of distorted guitars and pounding drums so uncharacteristic of the rest of the album that it was tucked away as a bonus track three minutes of silence past “Slide Show.” (Travis’ equivalent of “Endless, Nameless,” then.)

Still, The Man Who is not Déjà Vu or The Best Of Bread. Soft as it gets, it avoids becoming straight-up soft rock. A fair share of the credit for that belongs to the album’s producer. The timely choice of Nigel Godrich, whose name was still glowing from recent accomplishments with Radiohead, seems on the surface to be an overreach for a collection of such unfussy melodies, but it proved to be wise.

More than giving Travis credibility at the time, Godrich’s attention to textural detail and his nudging the band’s warm-hearted music into colder atmospherics conveyed a different kind of intelligence than the one Harris saw at work in Good Feeling. The hand of Godrich drew out the emotional topography hidden in hushed songs like “The Fear” and “Luv” that could have easily come across flat on tape, and it gave a few of the less sophisticated moments (rhyming “turn” with “learn” ad nauseum on “Turn”) some needed gravitas. Had the late 2000s folk rock boom come a decade earlier, The Man Who might have been its OK Computer. (For that matter, Travis were possibly ahead of their time when they pulled out a banjo for “Sing” from The Invisible Band in 2001.)   

1999 isn’t often remembered as a particularly robust time for rock music, but it proved to be an opportune moment for Travis. Only a month before The Man Who came out, the Verve, whose Urban Hymns had provided a blueprint for post-Britpop guitar bands, broke up for the second time. Oasis were off regrouping and recording Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants. In the absence of such headliners popped up an array of hopefuls with such promising names as Campag Velocet and Gay Dad, who somehow all turned out to be underwhelming.

In the US, aside from the bright lights of the indie rock world, 1999 was a time of Californication, Play, Enema Of The State, and waiting for the next Radiohead album. Travis didn’t have to make a lot of noise to stand out; likely it helped that they didn’t. Coldplay, later accused of stealing some of Travis’ thunder, were still getting their act together. Though The Man Who’s arrival in America was delayed until April of 2000, so too was the dropping of Parachutes until that November, giving Travis time to make an impression. The Invisible Band, the follow-up, became the more successful album here, with the band making the late night TV rounds to play “Sing” and “Side.”

Last year Travis embarked on a tour around the UK to play The Man Who in full, celebrating its lasting reputation. Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Healy suggested that the record had aged well because it felt “out of time” and Travis “are not a fashion-conscious band.” “We didn’t look at the charts and think ‘Ooh, let’s make it sound a bit like the current thing’,” he said. Out of time, maybe, but not out of place. Travis might not have consciously copied the charts, but they were hardly in a bubble, and received the signals they consciously tuned in to.   

Radio hasn’t stopped playing a role in Healy’s songwriting. “And turn the radio off/ To hear a song,” goes “Peace The Fuck Out” from their 2003 album 12 Memories. Much more recently, on Everything At Once from 2016, came “Radio Song.” In title it’s Healy’s most overt nod to the airwaves, and its state-of-a-relationship theme is similar to that of R.E.M.’s own “Radio Song” from Out Of Time. “I hear a song/ It’s coming on the radio…/ I wanna wake you up/ Don’t wanna play it on the phone/ The signal’s breaking up.” Just as it was seventeen years earlier in “Writing To Reach You,” Healy’s desire to communicate with a loved one is entwined with the radio at his side.

“Radio Song” walks it like it talks it with a chorus not unlike the readymade pop melodies of this decade. “What Will Come” from the same album is touched by “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” as well as the kind of music one would more likely assume Travis listen to at home. Trad as they might turn at times, Travis were never card carrying members of the Paul Weller Appreciation Society of the 1990s, and they have stayed tied to the people’s playlist at a point in their career when many bands would creatively close ranks and stick to their own canon. Really, as The Man Who first revealed, radio is their canon.     

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