Are Franz Ferdinand the most influential British guitar band of the last 20 years?
Given Franz are contemporary to bands like Arctic Monkeys, Bloc Party (whose influence has only become more apparent these last couple of years), or the Libertines, this might be a bit of a hot take. However, if one looks at the state of British guitar bands today, for better or worse, some of the most hyped-up bands – think Wet Leg, Yard Act, the Last Dinner Party, Courting, whatever Dan Carey is producing – seem to share the same raison d’être with Franz Ferdinand. They all craft debaucherous and danceable pop music capable of making everyone “explode from sheer joy,” as Paul Thomson, Franz’s former drummer, put it in a 2003 interview. Even in the US, bands like NYC’s own Gustaf, or Paramore, with their recent “C’est Comme Ça,” have been influenced by Alex Kapranos and friends.
I can’t help but wonder: Is this giving Franz Ferdinand too much credit? They were never as big as the Monkeys (although at one point they were bigger in the US), as genre-bending as Bloc Party, or as clichéd as the Libertines. But it’s their party tricks these newer bands have brought to the table again – Britpop-inspired harmonies and humor; fun, funky guitars; and dance floor-ready grooves. Why? None of those tricks were new in 2004 when they dropped their self-titled album on Domino Records, and they certainly aren’t new in 2024 either. However, few have used those shticks better than Kapranos, Thomson (the only actual Scot in the band), Bob Hardy, and Nick McCarthy, on that debut, released 20 years ago Saturday in the US.
In 2004, Franz Ferdinand were hot property. In the post-Strokes era, no one looked as cool as Kapranos and co. and made music that lived up to that appearance. They were, as Jazz Monroe wrote in Pitchfork, rejecting “British indie’s boys-club culture, slyly mock scrappy romantics like the Libertines” and preparing to “establish a smart, sexy, metropolitan counterpart.” Here was a band hailing from Glasgow’s art scene that NME dubbed life-changing in their cover and whose debut record – and one song in particular – was about to turn them into rock stars, helping shape the next few years of British alt-rock.
In Lizzy Goodman’s Meet Me In The Bathroom, Laurence Bell says there would be “no way” “people wouldn’t like” Franz Ferdinand. They were just that good. It was he who won the 2003 label war for the band and convinced them to sign with Domino. “Laurence risked everything on our first album”, revealed Kapranos in Words So Leisured, Domino’s podcast about the history of the band. “I know he put himself into considerable personal debt to make sure major labels wouldn’t get us.”
How Franz Ferdinand tumbled into rock stardom is not your typical rock ‘n’ roll story. By the time Franz Ferdinand came out, everyone in the band but Hardy (who didn’t even know how to play the bass when the band started three years prior) were either in their late 20s or early 30s. By rock star standards, they were old. Yet, when compared to some of their younger indie-dance-punk contemporaries, like the Rapture or the Libertines, Franz Ferdinand didn’t sound like they were on the verge of self-destruction. They just weren’t that kind of band. Instead, they sounded like a band whose members knew this was their last gasp at gunning for rock stardom.
Part of the reason why Franz Ferdinand as an album works so well is how everyone was in on the jest (everyone agreed to be in a band called Franz Ferdinand, so of course everyone was in on the jest). Tore Johansson, who produced their debut, described them as showing up in Malmö, Sweden, to record with a “plan and a really good concept” for the record. It wasn’t all smooth sailing; at the time, the band and Johansson clashed over how the record should sound. But over the years, it seems things have mostly quieted down, and everyone is happy about how things turned out.
Personally, I’ve always liked how Franz Ferdinand sounds. It’s part of the reason why it still feels fresh today. It’s slick, but not too slick. It sounds like a guitar record where everything was crafted to make people juggle their hips (and not just the girls). Franz Ferdinand spend their time delivering dance bangers, mastering the buildup and release of tension within each track. The switch-up in “Take Me Out”? A brilliant piece of songwriting that shouldn’t really work. The chorus in “Auf Achse”? An explosion of an earworm – and the band “really, really, really” loves a good earworm – that comes after the teasing verses. The techno-like breakdown of “Michael”, the greatest addition to the bisexual rock canon of the early aughts? Underrated to this day. An album closer influenced by Greek music? Yes! And I still have “40′” as my favorite Franz Ferdinand deep cut.
The words on Franz Ferdinand also flirt with that tension. They are very straightforwardly about hookups, nights out, betrayals, and love. And while it’s not hard to make music about these themes that sounds sexy and suave, Franz Ferdinand did it in a way that sounded unique compared to their peers. When you hear lines like “Words are poisoned darts of pleasure” or “I charm you and tell you of the boys I hate”, you don’t think of Julian Casablancas or Paul Banks. You think Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albarn, Justine Frischmann. They’re the ones who could write lines like that. They’re the ones who could reference Ivor Cutler or Terry Wogan and play around with Soviet-era aesthetics in their tunes (the second-best Soviet-era references of the early 2000s – sorry mates, but Regina Spektor takes that cake) without feeling cringe.
And sure, there’s a lot of Britpop wit in Franz Ferdinand. They borrowed that shtick and applied it to pop songs that paid devotion to the Beatles (McCarthy and Kapranos doing their best Lennon-McCartney impression was always the band’s secret weapon), Bowie, XTC, Talking Heads, Josef K, Gang Of Four and the Strokes. Critic Rob Sheffield notices this in Meet Me In The Bathroom: “Franz Ferdinand thought, ‘Wow, look at all these New York bands taking all our Britpop tricks and selling them back to us. We’re going to do it with better songs.'” And they did! If the songs weren’t that good, the band never would have become as big as they did.
A month after the release of Franz Ferdinand, the band signed a US licensing deal with Epic reportedly worth $1.5 million. This only helped them get bigger, particularly in the US. In September 2004, they took home the Mercury Prize; in 2005, they won two Brit Awards, were somehow invited to write that year’s Greece Eurovision entry, and earned two Grammy nominations. In that ceremony, they performed “Take Me Out” as part of a mash-up that included Gwen Stefani, Black Eyed Peas, and Los Lonely Boys. No wonder they “tried to get out of that,” as McCarthy told NME a few months later. It’s really bad. By then, their debut had gone platinum Stateside. For comparison, it took The Strokes’ Is This It nine years to achieve the same certification.
Franz Ferdinand never released a record as big as their debut. I don’t think they ever wanted to. They never meant to become as big as they did, but sometimes that happens when you write plenty of catchy and charismatic pop tunes and sell them as such.
Since the release of their sophomore record in 2005, they’ve become more like a cult band, releasing weirder and weirder records (and sometimes quite confusing ones – hi Always Ascending) as the years go by. I believe the one they did with Dan Carey, Tonight, to be better than their debut (it’s the one most of today’s Sprechgesang British groups want to replicate). But when I want to get a dose of Franz Ferdinand, I return more often to the self-titled. It’s one of the first records I ever downloaded into my first cellphone and the one that made me dig deep into their influences. Without Franz Ferdinand, I wouldn’t have learned to love Gang Of Four, the Fall, Wire, or Pulp.
In the last couple of years, Franz Ferdinand have amicably lost Nick McCarthy and Paul Thomson and replaced them with Dino Bardot, Julian Corrie and Audrey Tait. Yet, after everything, they still soldier on, doing their own thing. They’re doing it off to the side, away from the spotlight they had 20 years ago, but in some ways they feel more present than ever, their ethos embedded in a new wave of British art-rockers.
I saw Franz Ferdinand live twice in the last two years. Both times, they put on a superbly fun show. It didn’t matter if they were playing the hits or deep cuts, everyone simply exploded from joy. That’s how it has always been, from the very start.