The ring-road romance, the itch of the breadline, the electric thrill of the suburban weekend. The sordid sounds of a city on the slide. Those of us that had known Richard Archer during his days in Contempo were aware the boy had bravado – his was virtually the only rock band on the largely pop London Records – but when the scraggy, home-made CD from his new band Hard-Fi swaggered menacingly from its envelope in 2004, featuring eight tracks and a surveillance camera cover shot, we were amazed at the snarl and sizzle he’d grown. Here were songs to rock the satellites, peopled with young offenders, army desert rats, suburban dreamers and runaway dads tormented by the cash machine. Drenched with splashes of dub, house, soul, punk, hip-hop and reggae, they captured the very essence of 21st Century urban Britain, the wails of the Ghost Town mingling with the pulse of the dancefloor. And right upfront stood Hard To Beat, the irresistible coupling of Stardust and The Clash that would soon set bouncing the most ecstatic crowds of the decade.
The story of the record was just as enthralling. Recorded for just £300 in bedrooms, pubs and a studio called Cherry Lips that was converted from a taxi office, it was the product of Archer, broke and desolate after the implosion of Contempo, returning to his hometown of Staines on the very outskirts of London, forlornly watching planes lift off from Heathrow on their way to some place better. Determined not to let his rock’n’roll ambitions disintegrate, he fell in with a bunch of local lads desperate to ditch their dead-end jobs and escape to the big time; guitarist Ross Phillips talked his way into the band when Archer visited his stereo shop to listen to his demos on the best equipment possible, drummer Steve Kemp was a northern exile eager to suck up the big smoke and bassist Kai Stephens was easily convinced to quit his job in pest control.
With Contempo's old A&R guy Warren Clarke taking them on as manager and putting his house on the line to fund the release of their CD through his own Necessary Records label when he was turned down by every UK label, they started mailing out the mini-album to media and radio contacts.
The title on the CD was Stars Of CCTV, and it was instantly a record to monitor.
We watched those one thousand limited edition versions sell out in a week. We nodded knowingly as XFM got their most enthusiastic listener response for an unknown band ever after one spin of Cash Machine. We saw Atlantic Records snap it up amid an A&R scrum that saw forty execs from US labels queuing outside the tiny Water Rats club in King's Cross beside Kai's Rentokil van the band had borrowed to play the gig. And we kicked up the fire: the finished, full-length album garnered rave reviews and Album Of The Year tips in 2005. “What The Libertines did for grotty/beautiful East End drug poets, Hard-Fi are doing for the dole-for-life suburban estate Nowhere Kids,” went my own 9/10 appraisal in NME.
Hard-Fi hit the mainstream like a thunderbolt. The album entered the charts at Number Three and lingered around the Top Ten for six months before finally reaching Number One in January 2006. It narrowly missed out on the Mercury Prize, garnered two Brit nominations, spawned five Top Twenty singles including such genre-splicing classics as Cash Machine and Tied Up Too Tight and sold 1.2million copies worldwide.
Stars… was a certified modern classic and Hard-Fi a phenomenon - the most played act on Radio One in 2006 and the first band ever to sell-out five consecutive nights at Brixton Academy on a debut album, where the crowd were amongst the wildest I’ve ever witnessed, pogoing right back to the bar and smashing the venue’s record for beer sales. They were embraced by their heroes (playing with Paul Weller, The Clash’s Mick Jones and Damon Albarn’s Afrika Express project, getting calls from Rick Rubin calling their album “groundbreaking” and bringing The Specials back together for a Love Music Hate Racism gig), and their people – the deviant disco of Living For The Weekend would go on to be the song most played in football stadiums this century. And all this from a band with such stout DIY principals that they refused Atlantic's offers to re-record the album in swanky studios with big-name producers, and their greatest video moment involved jumping the fence at Heathrow Airport to film the promo clip for ‘Cash Machine’ at the end of the runway without a shred of permission, 30 feet below the climbing aircraft.
The sparkle of Stars… wasn’t without its tarnish. Hard-Fi’s glorious secret headline set at Glastonbury’s Leftfield stage in 2007 made up for the band having to cancel their 2005 appearance at the last minute when Rich’s mother passed away. And their US invasion was hobbled by Kai's well-publicized visa difficulties. But the Hard-Fi juggernaut powered unstoppably into 2007, expanding Cherry Lips and expanding their sound to take in mariachi, R&B, pop, gospel, art-punk and cinematic elements on second album Once Upon A Time In The West. If tracks like Television, Can’t Get Along (Without You) and the Top Ten hit Suburban Knights bolstered Hard-Fi’s melodic mastery, Archer’s emergence as one of rock’s most pumped and rabble-rousing frontmen was making their live shows akin to motivational rallies. When they agreed to play a club night of mine at the tiny Dublin Castle in the summer of 2007 the gig sold out in seconds and the band found themselves playing a sweltering room so crammed that it was impossible for them to leave the stage for an encore; so Richard acted out the encore process right there, from triumphant exit to nervous backstage fidget to exalted return. Heroic stuff.
Adorned with its controversial ‘NO COVER ART’ cover art, Once Upon A Time In The West soared straight to Number One in the UK, prompting Hard-Fi’s first arena tour which culminated in that milestone “Hello Wembley!” moment. It seemed a natural response to a record that broadened Archer’s lyrical concerns from the microcosm of suburban dole living to take in a nationwide political vista; the terror threats and illegal wars, greenback-grasping politicians and anaesthetic TV soaps. Weaving in deep personal anguish from what he described as “a dark period”, Archer turned Once Upon A Time… into an epic portrait of the working man’s struggle through a society built to contain him.
Ironically, this very British rebel record sent Hard-Fi global. They had Number One singles in Peru, smashed the radio in El Salvador and South Africa, played to crowds of 12,000 in ice-rinks in Japan and South Korea. Archer’s eyes were opened to the wide world beyond Bracknell. A road trip down Highway 61 to Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans, visiting Sun records and the motel where John Lee Hooker stayed and Etta James died, sparked an obsession with the blues roots of Dr John, Professor Longhair and The Rolling Stones. He went to hand out gifts in an orphanage for children with AIDS in El Salvador. He read stories of the Paris riots and Columbian artisans making guitars out of the stocks of Kalashnikovs.
Keen to explore more exotic sonic flavours, the band left Cherry Lips to study 80s Bowie, Madonna and Chic records in LA with producer Greg Kurstin, record their Afrika Express cohort Medhi Haddab playing his oud in Algeria and work with Stuart Price as far afield as Acton. Returning to add “a little bit of that Staines muck” at Cherry Lips with regular producer Wolsey White, the result was 2011’s masterful Killer Sounds, a bluesy dance-rock cracker in the vein of Primal Scream’s Movin’ On Up or prime Prince. “I was thinking along the lines of Big Audio Dynamite, these classic rock’n’roll riffs over up-to-date beats,” Rich said, but Killer Sounds was something far more accomplished and diverse, from the soul party horns of lead single Good For Nothing to the New Order disco devilment of Give It Up and Fire In The House and the all-out funk rave of Sweat. Its ideological heartbeat was the rousing title track, an ode to expendable youth inspired by an article Rich read about more people having killed themselves after the Vietnam and Falklands wars than had died in the conflicts. Like the best of Gorillaz, this was dance music with heat and heart.
The bombs in New York City. The bodies in Baghdad. The futile sweat of the triple-dip generation. And, despite it all, the elation of shedding all your troubles on the Saturday night dancefloors, whenever the bouncers will let you in wearing trainers. Killer Sounds may have been global in scope, but it epitomised the core manifesto of Hard-Fi. For ten years they’ve been shooting to the heart of a desperate generation rioting for Reeboks, been offering understanding, escape and abandon for the Broken British in songs to dance away the despondency, rave in the face of recession and rejoice in your youth. 2.6million album sales in, Hard-Fi remain political and emotional outsiders brimming with harsh, but eminently danceable, modern truths. CCTV’s boldest superstars.