Mystery Jets - The Best of Me and You: A History by Tim Dellow
03 Jul 2012
Transgressive co-founder Tim Dellow put out the Mystery Jets debut single way back in 2005, the label boss has been involved with the band in one way or another ever since and this article highlights the journey the band have taken from their formation on Eel Pie Island to their latest record 'Radlands'.
Having worked in music for almost 10 years now, I’m eternally grateful for how lucky I’ve been in meeting and helping some of the most important artists of our time. In this period, a lot has happened, a lot has changed, but one band has grown with me through this experience, treading their own unique path through the pop landscape, whilst watching contemporaries compromise to “make it big” often imploding before reaching those dizzy heights. The Mystery Jets have acted on their own compulsion to simply follow the muse; a uniquely pure and whole hearted approach to music which has seen them create, over the course of four distinctly brilliant albums, a body of work untouched by their peers.
At a recent session, John Kennedy described them as “a national treasure”, and on the release of their stunning new single ‘Greatest Hits’, I feel compelled to make a small tribute to Britain’s most underrated group. Any hyperbole I could lay on them, seems to my mind entirely warranted, if it goes some way towards a larger appreciation this uniquely special group.
Greatest Hits and The Hale Bop, for Bands In Transit:
The journey began at Eel Pie Island, reclaimed by an eccentric father who encouraged his son and their friends to make music and create their own community. The Mystery Jets were too young to go out to most clubs and so kick-started the ‘underage’ movement with irrepressible parties in their rehearsal room on this island in the Thames.
The first experiments of the group were heavily influenced by Prog – the fingerprints of Soft Machine and Robert Fripp are all over their early works with, of course, Syd Barret’s kitchen sink approach to lyric writing and a “pots and pans” approach to percussion, melding into a wonderfully unpretentious embracing of music in all its myriad possibilities.
This epic was a highlight of all early sets. We recorded this at the Astoria, supporting The Futureheads I believe, although I remember at the time being slightly down that this recording didn’t quite capture the immense rush during William Rees’ final solo, when the whole audience could be transported into a rapturous taste of the unknown. This was very nearly the first single, suggested to us by managers Sam Eldridge and Milo Cordell, now of the Big Pink, but we had heard the only song that they could launch with, we had heard Zoo Time.
If push comes to shove, this is my favourite single. Not just favourite I’ve been involved with, favourite in the entire history of 7” vinyl. Nothing sounds like it, or ever could I think. Or should ever try.
It wasn’t an ‘experimental’ piece. It was a pop song. But one of those frank industrial oddities like Warm Leatherette or O Superman which compel and confuse with each corrosive bang. Based, I believe, on the scene in Christiane F when the junkies visit the Zoo in Berlin, this showed a band that knew the history of music and popular culture, but embraced its future possibilities.
On My Feet
Competition was fierce to sign the ‘Jets long term, and soon they inked their first deal with 679, releasing this between album single on Paul Epworth’s first imprint. Although their musical collaborations of the time didn’t work out, his enthusiastic patronage saw this early gem from their live sets released, a neatly paired down demonstration of their more epic prog-stylings, this was both a glimpse into the band’s past, and a catch up for a new raft of fans who had yet to experience the live force of the group and who, at this stage, could not have known what incredible tunesmiths they were.
Alas Agnes - Live
Perhaps the first great “pop” song from the band, this tale of backstreet operations and gender bending love was a fantastical narrative that managed to blend real emotion with a large dose of humour, like the very best of Syd’s twisted creations. As this live clip attests too, it also linked them to the youthful exuberance of the new energy coming from the London scene, as they looked to imitate the poetics and bluster of The Libertines and The Strokes.
You Can’t Fool Me Dennis
Their first real step into the mainstream, the video for 'You Can't Fool Me Dennis' shows each of the band’s personalities so well – Jacko impersonations and all, and that rarest of things in authentic bands, a sense of them as a gang, exhibiting a closeness that comes from growing up together, but also giving the impression that you can join in with these people. As Mr. Cowell would no doubt suggest, there’s something very likeable about this group, but not in a contrite manufactured fashion. I even seem to recall them performing follow up single 'The Boy Who Ran Away' on one of the last ever editions of Top Of The Pops…
Of course, Making Dens didn’t neglect their more experimental urges. Produced with James Ford, they bandied together to recreate the feel of Eel Pie island, making their own den as an escape from reality which we could all join. Songs such as ‘Horse Drawn Cart’ and ‘Soluble In Air’ infusing the record with an unpretentious lyrical fantasy, whilst such personal diary openings as ‘Little Bag Of Hair’ set a tone for the more confessional writings of later records. However, these communal songs really came to life on that first major tour, as recorded lovingly in this documentary:
Many artists in our times have lost touch with the art of making a great album, with a focus on single tracks, and a loss of faith from much of the audience as A&R’s push bands to simply deliver a couple of singles and fill the remaining time with some bland facsimiles of that work. For the Mystery Jets, it was different – obsessing over Eno, Bowie and Wyatt, the band knew the power of a great album, the fuel this could bring to a compelling and surprising live set, and crucially the importance of re-invention and re-invigoration.
The band therefore took a gamble, with the debut album from dance provocateur Erol Alkan – a gentleman who had formed an important focal point for a generation with his club Trash which saw many a London band form in its legendary nights, and rub shoulders with the best of the USA crop – Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, LCD Soundsystem, Interpol and The Rapture. He was known as a DJ and remixer, but the band collaborated on some experimental b-sides to kick off a particularly fruitful relationship.
The best of these were taken and compiled with the best from the first album to create Zootime, a record specifically for the USA, in a similar fashion to The Cure’s ‘Boys Don’t Cry’.
Once the concept had been proven, the band worked with Erol to create Twenty One, an album which focussed on the art of the pop song, and revealed some of their biggest hits from it.
Launched with unique videos which were excerpts of album tracks, which would have been strong enough for lead singles for most bands, ‘Hand Me Down’, and ‘Behind The Bunhouse’ demonstrated a leap which saw the crude emotional source material of the first album clarified into powerful vignettes which packed a truly soulful punch, mirrored by a more streamlined, but more impactful sonic edge than previously achieved.
The glittering lead singles from this album though were immense and showed a band ready to be judged by any standards of pop writing.
‘Young Love’ is a perfect case in point. Showing the band’s desire to shine a light on other talented artists, a theme established from their first Eel Pie Island shows (with The Noisettes, Dr Filth, Jeremy Warmsley and more…), the band duetted with the then largely unknown Laura Marling in a nostalgic summer love song – glorious in its simplicity, but an earworm that stays with you long after its initial rush. The duets on this album campaign would continue with an early turn from Florence (without the Machine) as she re-vocalled album standout ‘Flakes’ on the B-side to ‘Half In Love with Elizabeth’.
Overly literal video aside, ‘Half In Love With Elizabeth’ took the indie blueprint of the time and consolidated it into a genre classic. The only track on the album produced by Stephen Street, hints of Blur and The Smiths were entwined with the kind of early ‘00s indie that Spector and Tribes are so drawn to now.
Half In Love With Elizabeth
If there’s one song however that people know from this album, hell, from The Mystery Jets in general, it’s ‘Two Doors Down’. Another mournful pop gem, a sister piece to ‘Young Love’ if you like, ‘Two Doors Down’ is a choice gateway track to another musical world “I hear she likes to dance around the room to a worn out twelve inch of Marque Moon”, pointing a new generation towards Television, a theme echoed on ‘It’s Too Late’ from Serotonin with its double entendre of “You couldn’t hide from The Kick Inside” and taken to an extreme conclusion with ‘Greatest Hits’ from Radlands which encompasses everyone from The Minutemen to Belle And Sebastian to ABC to The Fall… all in a three minute pop song. But ‘Two Doors Down’ is an insatiable pop song that deserves to close every indie disco until the end of time, so full of hooks that they could be hanging the bassist of Joy Division on the back of some fishing tackle.
Two Doors Down
But the album was full of substance, both lyrically on the likes of ‘Umbrellahead’, and in terms of build and construct in live favourite ‘Veiled in Grey’ but arguably hit its peak on current set closer, and potentially their finest song to date;
‘Flakes’ is one of those classic break up songs, close enough to the moment to be raw and affecting, but with just enough hindsight to avoid any emo self indulgence. The music traces the lyrics perfectly, animating lilts and creating the kind of drama and heartbreak that is near impossible to capture, falling through your fingers in flakes.
For the next record, Serotonin, The Mystery Jets moved to Rough Trade Records, aligning themselves with pop pervertors Scritti Politti, Belle and Sebastian, Arcade Fire, The Smiths and The Strokes. Deciding to work with an established producer rather than an untested pioneer for the first time, the band selected the legendary Chris Thomas, producer of Dark Side Of The Moon, Never Mind The Bollocks… and Different Class.
The epic scope of the record was typified by the almighty 'Alice Springs', one of the more heavyweight moments that the band had always threatened, but had never previously achieved.
There’s some debate amongst fans as to whether the core material of the record stands up to the quality of previous and subsequent efforts, despite the rave reviews and acclaim that greeted it on release, but you could sense in the songs an ambition and desire for absolute quality at all points.
Teaser single ‘Flash a Hungry Smile’ set the tone for the campaign, followed by Serotonin (the “coming up” video can be viewed here and of course ‘Dreaming of Another World’, the main single from the record and one which pushed duel front-man William Rees to centre stage.
The coherence of the album was again retained, seemingly closing another chapter of The Mystery Jets – consolidating their sonic palette and recording in a timeless fashion with one of their musical heroes and presenting them with a world of possibilities of where to turn next.
Tellingly, the confidence in the record was such that a number of killer potential singles, that didn’t fit the overarching themes and substance of the album were left off, revealed over the following months in other forms. From ‘Make Up Your Mind’, a bonus 7” with the vinyl that most “indie” bands would kill for as a lead single: to Kai Fish donating the song 'Hey Boy' for re-interpretation by Mark Ronson on his “Record Collection” album.
Perhaps the most dramatic hit of this period was a collaboration with William Rees and Kai Fish of The Mystery Jets with The Count And Sinden, creating an Ibizasmash in ‘After Dark’, and demonstrating that their sense of pop playfulness was still at large.
It was also during this period that Kai Fish delivered his debut solo album Life In Monochrome, a tortured clearing of the decks both artistically and emotionally which, I firmly believe, has the capacity to become a future cult classic. ‘My Anima’ the key single from the record reveals a sense of hope for the future despite great turmoil, and despite a close friendship that continues, and the guest appearances of Kapil Trivedi and William Rees on the album, this future was not to include the Mystery Jets, leaving the group following the recording of their next, and arguably best to date, album.
Following their muse, and continuing their bold strategy of re-invention, The Mystery Jets decamped to Austin Texas to leave behind their Englishness, musical equipment that they felt they’d overused, and friends and family, to explore themselves and their relationship as a band.
Hiring an isolated house, the band sought to re-kindle the spirit of musical adventure that began in Eel Pie Island all those years ago, and self-produce for the first time since their initial demos.
The results of this concept album, are magnificently self-assured, creating that perfect balance between timeless production, classic song-writing and eager and open experimentation.
Radlands Album Trailer
Songs such as ‘Greatest Hits’ and the magnificent ‘You Had Me At Hello’ sound gloriously out of time, whilst album standout ‘Someone Purer’, which opened the band’s triumphant sold-out Brixton Academy show, cements my unadulterated adoration for this group. Objectivity flies out the window for me when I hear this song, and all of my faith in the power of music is rewarded. And for that reason alone, we should always treasure, and show our appreciation for The Mystery Jets.
Keep your eyes peeled for our exclusive session with the Mystery Jets filmed at their Abney Park Cemetery album launch show.