Come ye come ye to bedrooms, bars and bunker squats/The sound is ringing clear/Now, who'd have thought that after all/ something as simple as rock 'n' roll would save us all (I Still Believe).
The old cliche about hard work paying off couldn't be more apt for Frank Turner, one of those heart-warming, yet unlikely success stories in this often bitterly difficult industry, where there are vastly more fallers and non-finishers than there are those who can actually make a living from doing what they invariably love. Of course, hard work doesn't often equate to success; artistically or commercially. Luck always plays a part, and being at the right place and the right time is a factor. But certainly, hard work, perseverance, and sheer bloody mindedness all play a big hand in achieving that elusive thing they call luck. And those handy/timely breaks, too. It also helps if your young, full of beans, and perhaps a little naive…
"I'm not given to half measures," says Turner. "I'm very passionate about music and passionate about being creative, and I am very aware of how fortunate I am to be able to do this thing that I do. I feel that it gives me an obligation to do something properly."
It was only a few years back, from 2005, that Turner was busking it in any way he could. Before that, as lead singer of hardcore band Million Dead, an underground outfit that achieved a small measure of success, Turner had toured constantly, winning fans via word of mouth and the support of the excellent indie Xtra Mile label, with whom he has continued his relationship. "They were the one group of people who didn't think I had lost my mind playing acoustic music," say Frank.
"I’m very proud of all the music we made in that band… (although) the actual process of that end wasn’t very fun. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if I hadn’t done Million Dead before. Once the end of Million Dead rolled around, I just didn’t want to be in a band anymore. The last year of Million Dead was just murderous. Four people who want to kill each other, sat in a van driving around Europe…it’s no fun."
Furthermore, Turner has also said that: "Lyrically, Million Dead was very over the top. It was trying to show the world how clever I was. It was essentially, 'I've read more books than you…'"
They split up in 2005, and as Turner documents in his excellent book The Road Beneath My Feet, published earlier this year, he wasn't sure what to do. But he did know that he wanted to carry on being a musician. And so, he migrated to a scene that coalesced around Nambucca's in Holloway Road, and armed with just an acoustic guitar, started to really get it together…
Yeah, I am sick and tired of people/Who are living on the B-list/Yeah. they're waiting to be famous/And they're wondering why they do this/And I know I'm not the one who is habitually optimistic/But I'm the one who's got the microphone here. So just remember this (I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous)
I first met Frank Turner when he was a guest on my radio show, for the small, Brighton based community station, Radio Reverb. I know the date (6 March, 2006), because it is one of hundreds listed in his book. Down-to-earth, engaging, informative and honest (as far as we know…), Turner decided to document his life as a solo musician, so far, in diary style. Beginning with the last Million Dead gig in 2005, and talking about significant dates in his gigging schedule since then. It's not just about the the gig though, but the desires, emotions, hardships, all the ups and downs that go into a life as a travelling musician. Plus, there are many funny and poignant anecdotes throughout, as befits a young man with a guitar, meeting and making new friends all the time.
As he outlines in his book, he was pretty wasted from the night before shenanigans when arriving in Brighton. But the point being, that despite "the dirty fingernails and clothes" he has always managed to haul his spaced out head/weary body to the next destination, usually by train then, armed with just an acoustic guitar and some burned CDr's, even if the gig was small (The Globe capacity, could not be more than 80) and the radio station tiny. But, the passion and enthusiasm he has, even when feeling shit, has never been in doubt. Not only that but his highly communicative way with lyrics, and the almost invariably big and boisterous style he has delivering them on stage, has been the deciding factor in his success. Much like a more strident Billy Bragg, or The Levellers, Turner's big and epic (where you feel everything he says is important) sound, whether on just an acoustic or with his trusty Sleeping Souls backing band, has translated into big success.
"I was gutted that Million Dead were no more," say Turner. "I ended up hanging at bar call Nambucca in Holloway Road, a place where the likes of Marcus Mumford, Laura Marling and Jamie T had been hanging out, too. It was eye opening, it wasn't so nihilistic, it wasn't so 'fuck everybody'. The appeal of punk rock had been in the defiance, and the rage and the rejection of society. That had appealed to me. I knew I wanted to keep playing music, but I also wanted to make a clean break, have some kind of fresh start. Playing alone with an acoustic was pretty radically different, and straight away it felt good to me. I'm not sure how good those early shows were. I was broke. But, I was learning; how to tour, about self-reliance, how to write songs, how to entertain and keep a crowd.
"The DIY ethos is basically not waiting around. You want to tour? Go and book one. And it turned into this rolling booking thing. I was out reasonably constantly for two years. My initial thing was that I wanted £50 and somewhere to sleep… I do enjoy working hard, yeah. I believe pretty strongly in self-invention, people can make themselves into the things they want to be, if they work hard enough at it. I have the best job in the world, so I'm not sure I need any special accolades for doing it a lot. I'm not sure I work much harder than people in normal 9-5 jobs."
"I won't sit down, I won't grow up/ But most of all I won't shut up" (Photosynthesis)
And so, from The Globe (gig number 62 in his solo career), he has constantly traversed the highways and byways of a country he loves (as well as other parts of the world), ending up at the O2 Arena last year, for his biggest gig yet (gig number 1527) "This is a strange place to have a gig," he tells the packed arena, which has been documented and can be found online, "Particularly one of my gigs," he smiles almost apologetically. "The old songs in particular, I expected to play them in bars, in bedrooms and at a push, The Astoria. We're throwing our hearts and souls into playing rock'n'roll!
"I look back on the early days fondly, of course," he say now, "whilst always remembering the rose-tinted nature of nostalgia's spectacles. It was a good time for me though, I was learning a lot about myself and my music. It's pretty crazy to consider the broad sweep of the gradient of my career, but also satisfying."
What also makes Turner an interesting subject for discussion is his upbringing, which involved parents who for a time hated the fact he wanted to be in a rock'n'roll band. His parents had actually tried, unsuccessfully, to ban him as a teenager from buying music magazines ("They didn't take well to me being a musician at first, but they've come round to it in recent years…") and the fact that he enjoyed an Eton education (via a scholarship) and a stint at the London School of Economics, were he studied History, whilst trying to make it with Million Dead: "I wrote my third year dissertation in a tour bus driving around Europe, which was a terrible way to write a dissertation, not least because everybody else on the bus was having fun while I was sitting there cross referencing my notes from the library…
"It's informed my music in the sense that it's informed me as a person," he says of his education. "I'm very grateful for the benefits bestowed on me. I do have views about education in this country, sure, but I can't say they're particularly detailed or well-informed. I think that equal access to quality education is pretty vital for the health of a society."
"I don't want to spend the whole of my life indoors/Lay low, waiting for the next storm/I don't want to spend the whole of my life inside/I want to step out and face the sunshine" (The Next Storm)
His parents though, if not proud, should be now. His Mum was at that 02 Arena gig, whilst hundreds of millions witnessed his appearance as part of the London Olympics opening ceremony in 2012, thanks to the director of the extravaganza, Danny Boyle, admitting to Frank he was a big fan of his work and would he like to do the honours? Turner got some grief from friends about appearing, perhaps amplified by the lyrics to the song he performed which contains the line: 'Come ye, come ye, to soulless corporate circus tops'. But, he shrugs this off. "I don't think the Olympics was any more or less 'corporate' than playing Reading Festival, or indeed any venue that sells alcohol. In fact probably less so, as we didn't get paid."
This year has seen the publication of his book, as well as a new album, Positive Songs for Negative People, already his sixth studio album, and once again recorded with The Sleeping Souls, the band he has recorded and toured with for much of his solo career. His songs, mirroring the success he has enjoyed, and the fact he is playing to bigger and bigger audiences, are grander, less like conversations between intimates, and more like heartfelt, unselfconscious sermons, that are, for the most part, positive… "It was an expression that wandered out of my mouth during a late night session with some friends," says Frank, of the album's title. "As with all things there is a degree of tongue in cheek – well I hope there is – I don't want to be overly po-faced. But it seemed like a good summation of what I am trying to do with life and my art."
As for the book, he is now full of praise for those who try and write for a living… "It was a lot harder than I thought it would be and I came out of it with a lot of respect for writers. I was slightly blasé about the whole process at first…"
So, is there no stopping Frank Turner? "Tomorrow morning I leave for a tour that will take me away until at least Christmas, and maybe into the sumer of next year." So, no there isn't!
And I still believe in the need/For guitars and drums and desperate poetry/And I still believe that everyone/ Can find a song for every time they've lost and every time they've won/ So just remember folks we not just saving lives, we're saving souls/And we're having fun. (I Still Believe)