Their story is one of the most extraordinary in contemporary British music. Over twenty years and seven studio albums, elbow have achieved many of the accolades that mark out a successful band. Their cabinet boasts two Ivor Novellos, a Mercury Music Prize, a BRIT award for Best British Band. They have been honoured with an hour long South Bank Show documentary, are one of the most featured modern bands on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs (in fact singer Guy Garvey has himself appeared as a guest on the show) and number a host of prestigious musicians within their fanclub including the likes of Peter Gabriel, Michael Stipe and John Cale, inspirations to the band themselves when they were starting out. elbow remain the only band to secure four consecutive 9/10 album reviews from the NME and their releases have been a permanent presence in the UK charts since the release of debut album, ‘Asleep In The Back’ in 2001.
The highlights on this long musical journey are so numerous as to be beyond listing. Standout moments bring to mind Glastonbury Festival’s sunset slot with a trio of performances on the Pyramid Stage regarded by some, not least The Guardian, as amongst ‘the all time greats’. Recreating their Mercury winning album, ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’, with the BBC Concert Orchestra in the world famous Abbey Road Studio One was undoubtedly a memorable moment for the band. That was followed by a collaboration with Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra (Britain’s oldest symphony orchestra) for the city’s international festival that culminated in the bells of the town hall playing the refrain from ‘One Day Like This’ across the place they still call home. In more recent times they were commissioned to write the BBC theme tune for their coverage of the 2012 London Olympics, creating ‘First Steps’ for the corporation and also taking part in the closing ceremony at the Olympic Park.
Manchester is a permanent presence in the history of the band and their music. It’s people and their stories permeate Guy Garvey’s lyrics, the band record and produce their music within Salford’s Blueprint Studios, the area’s buildings and landmarks appear across elbow’s songs throughout their albums. This grounding is a key to understanding the band. Never part of a scene or defined by their peers, elbow have consistently followed their own muse, talking of progressive music when it was at its least fashionable, eschewing the easy route to create and maintain a legacy that now stands as one of the most permanent and impressive in contemporary music.
In tandem with their music, the lyrics of Guy Garvey have, from that opening line of debut single ‘Newborn’, been arresting and affecting in equal measure. Guy stated at the very beginning that, ‘for us, both lyrically and musically it has to be sincere’, and this insistence on being true to yourselves has stuck fast throughout. Guitarist Mark Potter mirrors those sentiments from 1999 in 2016 when he says of new album, ‘Little Fictions’, ‘the songs went where they needed to go, we didn’t get concerned about ideas of ‘cool’ and relied on following our instincts’. As with all elbow albums, ‘Little Fictions’ is an expression of the collective vision of the band and bonded by the love and affection between the four band members that has persisted over two decades. If Manchester is their geographical foundation, love is their emotional power. Love is a theme that runs throughout elbow’s songs, not for nothing was ‘Cast Of Thousands’ named for the recording of the crowd and invited friends at Glastonbury singing ‘We still believe in love’ for the album’s ‘Grace Under Pressure’. The title track of new album ‘Little Fictions’ glories in a declaration that ‘love is the original miracle’.
Not that elbow’s story has been without its challenges. Championed by John Peel on their self-released ‘Noisebox’ EP in 1998, the band were picked up by Island Records following their appearance at that year’s In The City convention in Manchester but corporate takeovers saw them part ways with the label before a note was released. A mooted deal with EMI then collapsed at the eleventh hour and the band were left to consider starting all over again. The release of two EPs in 2000, first ‘Newborn’ and then ‘Any Day Now’ on local independent Uglyman changed everything, the band signed to Richard Bransons V2 Records and released their delayed debut album, ‘Asleep In The Back’ in 2001. Two more albums for V2 followed with ‘Cast Of Thousands’ (2003) and ‘Leaders Of The Free World’ (2005), cementing the band’s place in the UK music scene.
The demise of V2 during the lead up to the band’s fourth album could have seen the band again the victims of label issues. ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ was the first album to be wholly produced and mixed by keyboardist Craig Potter and the band secured a new deal with Fiction Records / Polydor. ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ again attracted critical praise but it was not until the album won the 2008 Mercury Music Prize that elbow entered the realm of the superstars, headlining festivals and touring arenas. The trajectory of the band was astonishing. ‘One Day Like This’, had scraped the UK Top 40 on its initial release, became ubiquitous on UK television as a soundtrack to sporting and life’s triumphs and disappointments, selling over 750,000 copies. ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ was propelled back up the UK album charts and passed the million sales mark.
True to form elbow maintained their musical compass in the face of such attention. ‘build a rocket boys!’ (2011) was heralded with ‘Lippy Kids’, a timely lyrical rejoinder to media hype about feral kids and attendant live shows were aimed at both the heart and the head, the Evening Standard observing at one of two sold out London O2 Arena shows ‘elbow have managed their lengthy ascent without ever aping stadium rock’s rule makers’. ‘The band’s first UK Number One album, ‘The Take Off and Landing of Everything’ (2014) may have seen Guy draw lyrical inspiration from a three month stay in New York but it retained all the hallmarks of elbow beyond the odd shift of lyrical geography, or, as Q magazine would have it, ‘a band masterfully in control of their craft’.
Which brings us to now. As they ready the release of their seventh studio album, ‘Little Fictions’, elbow are assured of their place in the halls of music history. However, such plaudits have never been at the heart of their thinking. As with their previous three albums, ‘Little Fictions’ was recorded at Blueprint Studios and produced by Craig Potter. At its core, it retains that desire from the band to produce music that is honest, beautiful, thoughtful and challenging. According to its producer, this more than any previous album sees the band ‘letting the music be what it wanted to be, following the simple path sometimes’. And that, in essence, could be said to be an apt description of elbow’s long and increasingly successful career.