The Fratellis: how we made Chelsea Dagger

‘My girlfriend was a burlesque dancer who used the name Chelsea Dagger. It was a play on Britney Spears’

Jon Fratelli, songwriter, vocals, guitar

From the age of 16 onwards, I spent my time either lying in bed or on the sofa, with the TV on and a guitar in my hands. For some reason, to write songs, those elements just always had to be present. And out of that would come these little ideas. Chelsea Dagger was one.

I was living in a quiet village outside Glasgow. I didn’t know anybody. I hadn’t travelled. I hadn’t really lived. So with that song, I was trying to create this alternative reality – a slightly dodgy underworld I’d never been to, filled with characters I’d never met. Burlesque dancers. Gangsters. Cradle-snatchers. The song has the atmosphere of a sinister old speakeasy.

I wrote it after meeting my girlfriend, who became my wife. At the time, she was building up to her first burlesque performance at Club Noir in Glasgow, which was the world’s biggest burlesque club night. I had no idea what “burlesque” meant. I’ll be honest: at first, it sounded to me like stripping, but I was told in no uncertain terms it was completely different. She’d chosen Chelsea Dagger as her stage name – as a play on Britney Spears – and something told me I could get a song out of that. But I don’t really see her as Miss Dagger, the burlesque dancer in the song. My wife is more wholesome.

We went to Los Angeles to record. I wasn’t mad keen on going down the road of the chant vocals. I really wanted to have a New Orleans big band playing. But Tony Hoffer, our producer, had us doing multiple vocal takes from all around the studio. At one point, I seem to remember standing on top of a £60,000 Steinway grand piano.

We didn’t think we’d made a hit. Most musicians are so hard on themselves that they never write something then punch the air. It was nice when Celtic started playing Chelsea Dagger at matches, but I think it got overused at sporting events. There was a period where every third team was using it and it’s hard for any song to keep up. I understand why some journalists formed the opinion that Chelsea Dagger was music for football hooligans, but I would never give any credence to that.

I wasn’t eased into success. It was a headfuck. Of course, there’s a downside to having a song like Chelsea Dagger, but it feels perverse to talk about it, because it’s made my life so much more pleasant. I doubt Rod Stewart wants to be playing Maggie May every night. I’m not even sure if Springsteen wants to play Born to Run. I’m exactly the same. But that’s the deal you make, and you have to do it in good faith. If you do it begrudgingly, people smell that a mile off.

Chelsea Dagger is a song for a crowd. When we play it, we fade into the background and it becomes theirs. That never gets dull.

Tony Hoffer, producer

There was something cool happening with the Fratellis and I wanted to be part of it. But my first call with Jon was awkward. He asked who I’d been working with, then told me: “That band sucks!” We got into an argument and I thought: “Fuck these guys.” I was really pissed. But it was just their Glaswegian sense of humour. It hits you like a brick wall.

I loved Chelsea Dagger from the start. The lyrics evoke some crazy movie I haven’t seen yet. I don’t even know if it’s possible for it to be made. And there are so many vocal hooks – I call it the hairbrush effect. Our concept was to have the song literally jump out of the speakers.

‘When they play it live, it’s rowdy’ … Glastonbury 2008.
‘When they play it live, it’s rowdy’ … Glastonbury 2008. Photograph: Edd Westmacott/Alamy

It’s a bit of a throwback to glam, a tip of the hat to T Rex. But we were also going for that beat you imagine when Las Vegas dancing girls kick their legs. Chelsea Dagger has that feel, but it’s faster. I’d cut out photos of dancers in feathered headpieces doing kicks and tape them to Jon’s microphone, so he’d have that in mind. Then I’d tape on pictures of Liam Gallagher, so you had the bounce of the dancers and the snarl of Liam.

It was chaos in the studio, but that lent itself to the song. Chelsea Dagger is not the kind of track where everything is polite and organised. It’s raucous, rough and ready. I wanted the chants to sound crazy. I’m on there as well – everybody just went out onto the studio floor, yelling and hollering.

We didn’t make Chelsea Dagger for sniffy journalists. We made it for people who like to have fun. When the Fratellis play it live, it’s rowdy, with drinks spilling everywhere. People are losing their shit.

The Fratellis’ new album Half Drunk Under A Full Moon is out 2 April on Cooking Vinyl.


Interviews by Henry Yates

The GuardianTramp

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