Before the international incidents with the Malaysian government, the tabloid-baiting mega-star romances, the regrettable dirtbag-left podcast appearances, the raw meat, the Twitter cancellations, the gigantic data dump albums, the Greta Thunberg collabs, the sensory-overload live shows, the Siri interludes, the doomscroll ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ rewrites, the heroin binges, the self-reflexive Brit Award performances, the self-blowjob music videos, the “I’m the Greek economy of cashing intellectual cheques,” and the Mercury Prize nominations… The 1975 were merely the Worst Band in the World.
That’s not an opinion, by the way, it’s a statement of fact. At the 2014 NME Awards – when the magazine was still trying to assert its edgy alternative cool by including a bunch of meaningless joke anti-awards – the voting public named The 1975 the Worst Band in the World. Their competition for this honour were 30 Seconds to Mars, Imagine Dragons, Muse, One Direction, and The Wanted. Aside from Muse, every act nominated were pop bands with predominately teenaged female fanbases, which should probably tell you a little bit about where the hate was coming from. But still, to win out over the biggest boyband of the decade in the middle of their imperial phase isn’t something to overlook. A lot of people, the kind of people who consider themselves musos and evidently cared enough to vote in droves in a pointless awards show, hated The 1975 from the minute they burst onto the scene.
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But let’s back up a little bit more than even that, to before The 1975 were The 1975. Frontman Matty Healy – eldest son of C-tier British celebrities Tim Healy and Denise Welch – guitarist Adam Hann, bassist Ross Macdonald, and drummer George Daniel met at Wilmslow High School in 2002 and played together under various names for an entire decade before settling into their eventual persona. (Such names as Talkbox, Forever Enjoying Sex, The Slowdown, and Drive Like I Do; which is not info that’s fully relevant to this piece but I just feel like sharing anyway.)
As the story goes, once it came time to be presented outside of the Manchester club scene, every single major label passed on signing due to the band’s refusal to stick to one easily marketable sound. So, manager Jamie Oborne, who’d signed them several years earlier when ‘Robbers’ was floating around online in a really really early format, started up his own label with the express purpose of making The Slowdown the stars he and they thought they should be. Soon after, the band would rebrand to The 1975, a name taken from a page of scribblings Healy had found in a used copy of On the Road, and re-re-re-introduce themselves with the 2011 Facedown EP.
The irony of major labels telling The 1975 they didn’t know what they wanted to be is surely not lost on anyone who paid attention to their meticulous image control. Sure, the music on those early EPs could drift between M83 ambience, Jimmy Eat World emo, and Durutti Column late-80s experimental pop on a track-by-track basis, but their aesthetic identity was ultra-cohesive.
Black-and-white photos and music videos at all times (a policy eventually relaxed to initial fanbase consternation), leather jackets and hoodies and distressed shirts and undercuts, artfully-filtered candids, and a desire to always take themselves very seriously where even outright pop moves had to come with post-modern or irony-laden acknowledgements. Combined with the fact that all four members are boyband levels of conventionally handsome, and you have an entire world for super-fans to escape into. Hell, ‘Sex’ would get three different premieres, once as The Slowdown and then two different re-recordings as The 1975, to guarantee that everything about its rollout – the music, the visuals, even the band name – would be just right.
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All of which is to say, The 1975’s initial rise had little to do with the traditional tastemaker music press and its readership – as Healy would note in a mid-2014 Guardian interview, “because we aren’t a dance band, because we don’t sound like The Libertines… it’s split a lot of people down the middle because they don’t know how to take it” – and nearly everything to do with the Tumblr generation.
The social media microblogging website which, at its peak, was predominately a space for teenage girls, LGBTQIA+ subcultures, and misfit progressives to geek out about their favourite artists, emotionally vent in (somewhat) supportive spaces, share fashions and photos (right before Instagram went supernova), and all whilst breaking down the traditional regimented genre and social barriers that would separate art in a pre-Internet age. A lot of the artists which gained a foothold in the Tumblr space – Lana Del Rey, Lorde, the revamped Arctic Monkeys – were acts whose aesthetic and musical sensibilities overlapped with the platform, and right at the exact moment in a user’s age where an intense devotional fandom could take root.
Within all of this, I promise, there was some actual music. When The 1975 finally put out their debut full-length, which turns ten on the 2nd September, they’d already released four EPs which placed them at the forefront of this new genre-blending Internet pop frontier. Each of those EPs would centre around one outright banger – ‘The City,’ ‘Sex,’ ‘Chocolate,’ ‘The City’ again in re-recorded form – and then three or four slightly more experimental ballad-y numbers teasing a greater depth than the highly accessible, radio-friendly, and very 2013 pop-rock band put forward on those lead singles.
Healy would insist those four EPs were necessary to provide context for The 1975, “this long ambitious debut record”. In reality, The 1975 flips the bangers-to-experiments ratio of those EPs, seeing the band operate primarily in pristine 80s-influenced pop mode with occasional excursions into the more hip hop and electronic-influenced sides of their sound. A decade on, it’s turned out to be their most narrow and straightforward album to date.
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To be clear, even at release (as noted by Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene), this wasn’t some radical one-of-a-kind music. When you also set aside the obvious influence of M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming and the other crop of indie acts who were embracing mainstream pop sheens like Two Door Cinema Club and Foster the People, The 1975 were arguably beaten to the punch on their own niche by The Neighbourhood who’d released their Tumblr-beloved debut I Love You (led by single ‘Sweater Weather’) back in April.
As somebody won in by first seeing the original EP video for ‘Sex’ on NME TV back in late 2012, even I was being kept at a distance from proper fandom by the disconnect between their borderline pretentious aesthetic seriousness and the very uncomplicated pop music they were actually putting out. Having been in both the early-00s garage rock revival and indie sleaze trenches, I didn’t find much standout substance in pairing 80s drivetime radio MOR music with lyrics about shagging girls and doing drugs in the 2010s. The 1975 was mainly a handful of killer singles and some agreeable filler to me, nothing to become obsessed over.
Given that I went on press assignment to Leeds Festival last weekend for the sole purpose of hearing The 1975 play their debut in full live, it’s fair to say that my attitudes towards both the band and the album have shifted a bit since then. You don’t see me (or anyone else for that matter) clamouring for a tenth anniversary The Neighbourhood tour. So, what happened? Mostly, The 1975 kept evolving.
An album like their debut would’ve been just another pretty good indie release in a year not exactly lacking for pretty good indie releases, a relic of the Tumblr era, had they not gone on to bigger and better things. 2016 sophomore effort I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it was where the genre magpie eclecticism of the band became most apparent – going from INXS take-offs to gospel-soul to Brian Eno ambience to shoegaze to post-dubstep on a literal track-by-track basis – whilst blowing up the 80s pop of the debut into a glorious widescreen cocaine haze.
2018’s A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships and 2020’s semi-sequel Notes on a Conditional Form saw Healy embrace his “voice of a generation” status to tackle politics, climate change, religion, and being a horny rockstar whilst the world’s on fire. Even the back-to-basics concision of last year’s Being Funny in a Foreign Language iterated upon the debut’s straightforward pop with the unconventional structures, wayward genre switches, and more intimate lyricism they’d honed over the previous decade.
As a result, the simplicity, smaller stakes, and focused scale of The 1975 shines even brighter nowadays. You can listen to the circular pop-funk of ‘Settle Down’ and hear the bones (riff and vocal structure) which would be upcycled for I like it when you sleep standout ‘She’s American’ whilst also appreciating the bits only it does (that whistle-like synth bridge is catchy as all hell). ‘
The City’ screams 2011, that time when nearly every British indie band was trying to write their own version of The Big Pink’s festival-dominating ‘Dominoes,’ but it’s also an excellent introduction to the world of The 1975; the city as escape and prison, sex as desired and dispiriting, nothing to do but spark up and shag. ‘Girls’ is maybe the brightest, shiniest, poppiest song on an album which is almost nothing but bright, shiny, poppy songs. It’s also a fun-as-heck double-sided morality play about both teenaged girls in a rush to flaunt unearned maturity through sex, and much older men who really should know better than to indulge them.
The benefit of hindsight also reveals, at least as somebody who wasn’t in that Tumblr scene, that Healy already had a hell of a way with words. Nowadays, it’s commonly accepted in critic circles that Matty Healy is a very funny guy – both in the kinds of interviews that seemingly only Manchester-born rock stars can provide, and on-record – with a literary bounce to his writing. But even at a time where his band’s music was being tarred as style over substance, he was cranking out ear-catching turns of phrase and quotable lines that make for worthy tattoos. The 1-2-3 punch of ‘She Way Out,’ ‘Menswear,’ and ‘Pressure’ are perhaps the best examples.
‘She Way Out’ is another bad hook-up at a party song, one with an opening lyric calling back to ‘Robbers,’ but “She said ‘it’s not about your body, it’s just social implications brought upon by this party that we’re sitting in’” is the kind of overwritten line that’s both immense fun to sing and sketches a character’s personality completely. After its vibe-y instrumental throb, ‘Menswear’ cracks open to detail a hilariously off-the-rails wedding reception filled with fights, accusations of infidelity, and drunken make-out/vomit sessions. And ‘Pressure,’ one of the first instances of Healy writing about the crushing nature of fame on his psyche, marries the most vulnerable lyricism on the album with a soaring saxophone close.
It’s nowhere near a perfect album; comfortably #4 on my personal rankings. ‘Talk!’ is the kind of half-sketch most indie debuts get stuffed with to pad the runtime. The re-recorded ‘Sex,’ though still great, doesn’t hold a candle to the electric (relative) rawness of the original EP take. The spare piano ballad ‘Is There Somebody Who Can Watch You,’ whilst a very personal song for Healy – dedicated to his little brother as both the band took off and their parents divorced, recorded in his childhood home the day before it was sold off and he had to move out – is a limp end to this particular record.
And, in an opinion that will likely get me castigated by the fandom, I’ve never really cared for ‘Robbers’ outside of hearing it live. But when this thing hits, it really hits with a directness and wide-eyed optimism/naivety they (understandably) haven’t quite been able to fully recapture in the years since. It’s a teenaged/early 20s album, through and through, that’s not so much era-defining as it has been defined by its era and there’s something real comforting about going back to it.
The 1975 aren’t ones to get caught up so much in nostalgia. When doing a special 10th anniversary run-through at Manchester’s Gorilla earlier this year, Healy would repeatedly pepper the between-song banter with notes that “nostalgia is a sickness” and that they were only comfortable doing that performance because he truly believed that “we’re making the best music of our lives right now.”
Perhaps because of that, and also the album performances functioning as breaks from the more outwardly conceptual tours they’ve recently embarked on – which have fed back into a revived hate train for those outside the fandom – he and the band looked to be more relaxed and having more fun than they had been in a long while. At Leeds Fest, after a rendition of gorgeous synthpop smash ‘Heart Out,’ he wondered aloud why they don’t play tracks off of The 1975 more often. Funny how one can have a slight nostalgia for when they were merely the Worst Band in the World rather than the biggest.
The 1975 was released on 2nd September 2013.