It’s 10 years since a British newspaper declared of the Courteeners debut, St Jude: “I confidently predict that exactly no one will be listening to it in 10 years time.” The quote is now cheekily emblazoned across the vinyl of the new “unplugged” version of the album and was being tweeted by singer Liam Fray this week. The band are entitled to feel vindicated. The intervening decade has seen them haul themselves up from small venues to become one of the biggest bands in the country. Their popularity gets – as Spinal Tap would say – more “selective” as one travels further away from Manchester, but especially in Scotland and the upper half of England they are so huge that this sold out 21,000-seater hometown concert is their smallest in the north-west for some time.
Scant support from radio or media has given them a powerful air of victorious underdogs, and they are greeted like a “people’s band”. The atmosphere is more football match than pop gig, with massed chants, flares (to the chagrin of security), people staggering with trays of beer and a jacket used as a beach ball. The entire crowd sing Oasis’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Star before the band are on, and the suspicion that Courteeners fill an Oasis-sized hole is furthered by chants of “Li-am” (at Fray, not Gallagher) and Fray’s entrance in the kind of bizarre, outsized, hooded outfit sported by his namesake.
The yearning for an Oasis-type, anthemic, communal experience is part of it, but musically, Courteeners offer a broad-brush, one-size-fits-all amalgam of various other indie rock touchstones: Arctic Monkeys, the Libertines, the Smiths and the Stone Roses. In Fray, they have a lyricist capable of Alex Turner/Mark E Smith-type acidic, off-kilter observations, but who can also speak directly to his constituency about their lives. The lovely Are You in Love With a Notion? tells of a girl planning to to quit Debenhams and elope. It’s an aural kitchen sink drama with its note of caution – “Have you really thought this through? / Is he really the one for you?” – delivered in a singsong chorus. Elsewhere, lines such as “You’re having a shit night, but I’m having a ball” or “They do my ‘ead in” are perhaps less poetic, but Fray effortlessly applies for the position of working-class hero: “Has anyone got work in the morning?” he asks the crowd. “Well, don’t go in. Tell them Fray said it was OK.”
Like Smith, the bearded 32-year-old understands the power of creating a feeling of unity against everybody else, dedicating songs to “anyone who’s had someone look down on them” and the aforementioned newspaper while stopping just short of becoming boorish. No one seems to notice that not all the songs from St Jude hold up too well, but the likes of Not Nineteen Forever and the later The Opener – a love letter to Manchester via the thoughts of a man who’s worked away, and another chant-friendly singalong – generate extraordinary levels of crowd euphoria.
Although Fray does an acoustic solo section and there are forensic traces of funk and disco, the formula never strays far from singable, rudimentary but highly impassioned indie rock and perhaps it doesn’t need to: the Ford Cortina they got their punning name from was also ridiculed by critics, but became Britain’s best-selling car.
- At Neighbourhood Weekender, Warrington, 26 May. Tickets: nbhdweekender.com/. Then touring.