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Standing in the Shadows of Giants

How the band pegged as the next Radiohead and the next Oasis defined the late-’90s era of Britpop—and ultimately ended up becoming musical royalty in their own right

Dan Evans

Welcome to 1999 Music Week, a celebration of one of the most interesting, vivid, varied music years ever. Join us as we count down the best singles and albums of the year, remember the days of scrubs and the girls who wear Abercrombie & Fitch, and argue about which albums stood above the rest.

Before Travis became stars on the strength of superhumanly earnest folk ditties like “Sing” and “Why Does It Always Rain on Me?” that did the furthest thing from rocking, they announced their intentions with a song called “All I Want to Do Is Rock.” The image of a bottle-blond Thom Yorke yammering “I wanna be Jim Morrison” at MTV Spring Break was scalded onto our brains, and he lived to make The Bends, so maybe listeners were able to sense some bit of irony in such an opening salvo. But in 1997, Travis’s pleasant-boy swag could be taken at face value on “All I Want to Do is Rock”—why would a British band in 1997 want to do anything else?

Frontman Fran Healy and his fellow bandmates were largely overlooked even in their hometown of Glasgow, and moving to London at the height of Britpop only emphasized their also-ran status. “Have you ever gone to a house party and you’ve turned up and it’s almost like … an hour before it finishes?” Healy recalls. “Everyone there is drunk and you’re not.”

Despite getting there late, Travis would eventually inhabit the same olympian airspace as Oasis, Blur, Pulp, and the Verve, with two no. 1 albums and a run of singles that became utterly inescapable. As Guardian and Pitchfork music writer Laura Snapes recalls over email, in her preteens, “They were everywhere: Radio 1, the supermarket, Top of the Pops, playing in shops. We had the CD at home.” In Almost Fashionable, the 2018 documentary that follows Travis on tour, British music writer Wyndham Wallace plainly states that the same CD could be found in one out of every six homes in the U.K. But that would happen in 1999 with their sophomore album, The Man Who, which turned 20 in May. It transformed a humble Glasgow quartet into the new Oasis and the new Radiohead, largely by sounding like the old versions of those bands. Travis were soon venerated as unintentional reactionaries in a confusing, unstable, and progressive time of nu-metal, rap rock, and electronica, predicting a retrenchment in British and American rock music that’s still ongoing after 20 years.

The Man Who is a great album that could’ve been wildly successful at any point in the past 40 years. Its popularity alone would mandate a celebration at a time when even lesser-loved Mogwai and Ben Folds Five works are subject to reappraisal. But the album was just as much of a milestone for its historical context, a document of British rock music’s bloodless coup in 1999, when Travis inherited the throne after every royal in waiting was too coked out to step up for the coronation.

Noel Gallagher caught Travis plugging their pedestrian debut, Good Feeling, at London’s 100 Club in 1997, and selected them as an opener for the tour supporting Oasis’s juggernaut third album, Be Here Now, described as “cocaine set to music” in one of its many hyperbolically positive reviews. Be Here Now shattered first-week chart records in the U.K., selling 696,000 copies in three days. Its traditional first-seven-day sales clock in at 813,000, about 10,000 more than Adele’s 25. Healy boasted, “It was like supporting the Rolling Stones back then,” and that might actually be an understatement.

In the span of less than a year, Be Here Now revealed itself not as the zenith of Britpop but also its 71-minute death knell (with Johnny Depp playing slide guitar somewhere in the mix). The Verve, who in a relatively more humble phase made a song literally called “This is Music,” finally achieved a monster international hit with “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” which explained the meaning of life in its first line; this is not to be confused with Manic Street Preachers winning the 1997 NME Best Single Award with “A Design for Life.” Three years after Different Class signaled a revenge of the nerds, art school kids, and common people amid the blue-collar playacting of Britpop, Pulp returned with This Is Hardcore, described by critic Stuart Berman as “the tombstone that dropped onto the grave” of Britpop, loaded with morose songs about the inevitability of death and making homemade porn. (Those were the singles.) Always canny with their sonic pivots, Blur presumably sidestepped the shadow of Oasis with a self-titled album of Pavement fanfic that included “Song 2.” Blur continues to get played more often in football stadiums than Oasis, but only in the U.S. But then came 13, a muggy, dubbed-out album produced by electronica maven William Orbit that doubled as an autopsy for Damon Albarn’s breakup with Elastica’s Justine Frischmann. At that point, Elastica itself was a year away from The Menace, a similarly troubled and hit-free swan song. “Be Here Now was the comet, and we were the insect that hid under the rock,” Healy jokes.

That cratered landscape allowed a band as insular and humble as Travis to emerge as the next big thing. In 1997, all Travis wanted to do was rock and not get hassled by underage girls, and nobody believed it. But just a short time later, their songs about waking up alone every day and not feeling like the other boys and wondering why they’re always miserable made them the biggest band in Britain. “You can have it all, but how much do you want it?” Oasis asked rhetorically on their 1994 starmaking debut single, “Supersonic.” Travis would soon have it all, but they never even asked for it. Having previously shared a practice space with flash-in-the-pan Brit rockers Menswear and airtime with countless similarly hyped bands, Healy knew very well the love of the rags and radio was very conditional. “I never needed that type of validation. I’ve always been given enough love by my parents,” he says.

The title of Almost Fashionable is quintessential Travis, a self-deprecating reference to their popularity that never acquires the sour aftertaste of a humblebrag. See also: 2001’s The Invisible Band, a reference to them having famous songs, but not being famous themselves. Healy did have “famous hair,” rocking a fauxhawk that won him Melody Maker’s “Haircut of the Year” before David Beckham ran away with it. But all of a sudden, British bands were starting to emerge in the image of Travis. Or, more accurately, what Healy calls the band’s “anti-image.”

As Wallace points out during Almost Fashionable, Travis was, “dare I say it—even nice, the kind of band my mother might like,” which means that they’re not the kind of band Wallace or his ilk would like. The implication is that mom rock is on an even lower plane than dad rock. “I couldn’t tell you anything about Travis apart from that they’re probably nice blokes,” Snapes adds in our email conversation. Not surprisingly, according to former Times chief rock critic Pete Paphides, “They hate being called nice.”

Perhaps, but when the masses needed someone to turn to after being jerked around by the emotionally impenetrable guys in Radiohead and the drunken egotists in Oasis, Travis were the rom-com heroes, the “nice guy” rebound who’d been there all along. “Noel Gallagher had started performing acoustic slots in Oasis encores sitting down,” NME critic Mark Beaumont said via text message. This led to the popularity of what he describes as “stool rock”—the post-Travis wave of bashful, cuddly folkies like Starsailor, Turin Brakes, and even Badly Drawn Boy that asked, what if the whole album was “Wonderwall”? It’s not that British listeners lost their taste for melodic, stein-hoisting rock with lyrics that were somehow both astonishingly simplistic and also somehow nonsensical. Healy is fully aware of this: “Singing is an elevated form of storytelling,” he told Wyndham Wallace in a Quietus feature, explaining that simple words that can look silly on the page become profound when they’re set to melody. He proved his point with a smash single named for this very topic called: “Sing.” (“The love you bring / won’t mean a thing / unless you sing.”) This is the exact rationale Noel Gallagher uses to defend the daft gibberish of “Champagne Supernova.”

The Man Who was a good hangover balm during a confusing time for British music—an album that felt ruthlessly designed to accompany countless mornings spent swaddled under blankets, unready to face another cruel blast of sunlight. From 1997 to 1998, “electronica” was threatening to overthrow rock music but ended up serving the same function—the bullish anthems of the Prodigy’s The Fat of the Land were as nuanced as AC/DC, while the Chemical Brothers’ monster hit “Setting Sun” featured none other than Noel Gallagher. Meanwhile, a look at the no. 1 albums of the time are illustrative—legacy acts like the Corrs, George Michael, Simply Red, and the Beatles dominated. If there was a void that needed filling, few were confident in Travis’s ability to do so. Including their record label.

“We had this weird meeting where the guy from the label was brainstorming angles, and they were coming up with some really shit ideas,” Healy jokes. For example, having Travis play the Gumball Rally, a new, 3,000-mile motorcross event that stretched from England to Italy and was targeted exclusively to the super-wealthy. Healy’s ideas were no better. “Writing to Reach You” and “Driftwood” had gotten moderate buzz as the first two singles, but were starting to fizzle out. Healy made his pitch to align the release of “Why Does It Always Rain on Me?” with Wimbledon. “It’s gonna be sunny and then it’s gonna rain like it does every year, and maybe the BBC will pick it up,” he pleaded. “It was sad and desperate.”

And he was on the right track. Travis played Glastonbury in 1999, and, for the duration of the song—an anthem for everyone’s inner Charlie Brown—the field got soaked by a sudden downpour. The crowd erupted at the serendipity. Travis finished, and then the rain magically stopped. Healy thought it was a fairly weak performance before he returned to his hotel and saw their televised set transformed into a legitimate generational moment, “the stars aligning for just a split second,” he said. But Healy credits Travis’s massive success to a combination of pluck, luck, and good ol’ fashioned elbow grease, i.e., relentless pressure from their label’s radio promoters. “It’s just one guy at Radio 1 who literally said to our plugger, ‘OK, OK—for fuck’s sake, we’ll hammer it,’” Healy remembers. “We didn’t realize we were about to get hit by a tsunami.”

Epic originally had no plans to release The Man Who in the U.S.; “They just thought, Nah, it’s too depressing,” Heally recalls. This was a common theme for Healy among even those in his circle who liked the album. Healy remembers being told it was fantastic, but that its hard pivot away from Good Feeling’s laddish charms would amount to “commercial suicide.” Epic changed its tune by April 2000, and The Man Who was welcomed by U.S. critics and listeners who devoured British mags like NME and Q and assumed a veneer of credibility of basically anything that had enough juice to rocket across the pond.

Travis’s transformation into critical darlings was even more unfathomable to Healy than their sudden popularity. Upon the release of The Man Who, Healy would zone out in his living room, surrounded by clippings of press like a form of descendental meditation. “Every single review was shit, two stars in Q is a fucking death warrant,” he says. Those same magazines were naming it Album of the Year only eight months later—begrudgingly, Healy assumes. “There was a lot of animosity from journalists towards us because we were seen as having circumvented their gate,” he says. “They’re the gatekeepers of taste and they were like, ‘How the fuck did that happen. Where did they get in?’”

The Man Who is tied to its time by the spacious production sheen by Nigel Godrich, who parlayed his astonishing work on Radiohead’s OK Computer to gigs with the leading icons of American indie culture: Beck’s breezy, lunar folk excursion Mutations and Terror Twilight, the eerily antiseptic bow out from Pavement. Positive reviews from Entertainment Weekly and even Pitchfork complimented The Man Who for being a softer, folkier companion to OK Computer. “If you have any weakness for sad-eyed Celtic troubadour lads, The Man Who will feed your jones and invite you to stay for supper,” Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield proclaimed in his 3.5-star writeup of a band that could pass for “Radiohead minus the science fiction.”

“Had the late-2000s folk rock boom come a decade earlier, The Man Who might have been its OK Computer,” Ian King mused in a Stereogum 20th-anniversary piece. At this point, it might seem like OK Computer—an album that’s sold approximately 8 million copies and is widely considered one of rock music’s greatest accomplishments—is being equated as an end-times document with Be Here Now. Radiohead made it extremely clear in their monumentally dispiriting tour documentary Meeting People Is Easy that they wanted no part in being the future of retrograde rock music—a suspicion hinted at by their ambient OK Computer B-sides and confirmed in October 2000 by the release of the nearly guitar-free Kid A. While it shot to no. 1 and inspired the absurdly florid rave review of its time, it was still seen as a betrayal to the Beatles/Floyd lineage in which Radiohead had been placed.

In that gap between 1998 and late 2000, The Man Who was an album to turn to for comfort. To the same degree Travis is deemed responsible for “stool rock,” they opened a lane for bands whose lyrics dealt in the same “complaint rock” emotions as The Bends, except with the cybernetic production of OK Computer. The “next Radiohead” umbrella spread large enough to cover acts as wildly divergent as Clinic, the Beta Band, and Elbow, while eventually including American acts like the bombastic Jeff Buckley grave-robbers in Ours. Even Thom Yorke’s younger brother got signed to a major label deal, but Unbelievable Truth was no match for Muse’s 1999 debut, Showbiz, as the most fidelitous Bends clone. Muse have morphed into a kind of Queen/Rush/EDM Stranger Things cover band hybrid in the past decade, yet the comparisons endure—in the early 2000s, Muse MP3s were being convincingly mislabeled as Radiohead B-sides.

To the same extent that Travis was a harbinger of death for mid-’90s Britpop, they gave life to some of the bands that would eventually destroy them. Healy recalls passing by a newsstand about six months after the release of The Man Who and feeling pleasantly surprised that his band was on the cover of Select magazine—big enough where you just show up on the cover without any kind of interview, he thought. The haircut was familiar, he recognized one of his own T-shirts, and, upon looking closer, he experienced the kind of heart-sinking moment The Man Who had soundtracked for thousands upon thousands: “It was Coldplay.”

Travis vs. Coldplay did not end up being the Blur vs. Oasis of its time; Healy harbors no ill will toward Chris Martin (ironically, Healy played with a musician named Chris Martyn in an early iteration of Travis) and vice versa. “Travis … invented my band and lots of others,” Martin once said, and Healy is quick to confirm that assessment. “I remember being at gigs, turning around, and seeing Chris at the side of the stage just watching us,” Healy jokes. “In really weird places in the middle of nowhere in America, he’d be standing there, studying it! He’s very, very focused.”

But at the time of Coldplay’s 2000 debut, Parachutes, the band didn’t seem like much of a threat to Travis’s market share, or really a threat to anyone. For the first time, Travis had the burden of expectations and enjoyed instantaneous success with The Invisible Band, amassing greater sales in its first four weeks at the top of the U.K. charts than The Man Who did in six months while staking out an impressive no. 39 debut in the U.S. Better evidence of their growing profile came in August, when the band booked a show at Radio City Music Hall, a 6,000-seat theater best known for hosting the Grammys. The show was scheduled for October 3, 2001.

There are plenty of bands who can reasonably blame 9/11 for their commercial decline, as hundreds of previously innocuous songs were caught up in Clear Channel’s dragnet of potentially triggering song titles. Travis would seem like the least likely candidate for this fate. The only remotely political song they’d written to that point is “Side,” a forthright strummer whose message amounts to, “We’re all on the same team.”

But Healy found himself questioning the honesty of his kinder, gentler rock band. “No one was touring [after 9/11],” Healy sighs. “I remember being in Norway thinking, ‘Who wants to listen to music right now? I don’t want to play. It’s terrible.’” Exhausted from touring and the escalating war in the Middle East, Healy found himself as, “a 28-year-old guy dealing with all of his demons, and all of a sudden he’s in a massive band and never even planned it.” The result was 2003’s 12 Memories, which appeared to answer all of their critics by checking off a lot of “difficult album” boxes: the “self-produced” album, the “antiwar” album, the “album informed by tragedy”—a year earlier, drummer Neil Primrose suffered a severe spinal injury while swimming. Both the grim, defaced, and text-free black-and-white cover and the “Re-Offender” video were shot by Anton Corbijn, the Dutch artist best known for visuals for U2’s “One,” Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box,” and basically every Depeche Mode video. Not coincidentally, Healy started wearing a beret around this time. No one seemed particularly convinced by the darker, edgier Travis. The singles stalled out on the outer edges of the Top 40, the record peaked at no. 3, and critics no longer felt the need to qualify their dismissals of the band. “I really had a miserable time,” Healy says of the time leading up to 12 Memories, still one of his favorites. “I didn’t like being famous.”

Fortunately for Healy, there were plenty of bands who absolutely wanted to be famous and a British press ready for the pendulum to swing in the other direction. In the big picture, the “New Rock Revolution” is typically seen as a negation of nu-metal and teen-pop—the “cliffs” between which Travis existed during The Man Who. But it was just as much a repudiation of Travis and their ilk. In the U.K., the years between 1998 and 2002-ish are considered an absolute dead zone for music, Snapes says. “We were desperate for something to kick us out of the stupor of the previous two or three years,” Beaumont adds. Even by The Invisible Band, the U.K. press had already begun to move on to the Strokes, the White Stripes, and tabloid-friendly libertines like … the Libertines. “The Strokes, certainly in the media and at the NME under a series of new young editors, were taken as a new Year Zero,” Beaumont says.

“We wanted to be the best band in the world, and part of that journey is being the biggest band in the world for one moment,” Healy says. “You might get to the top of Mount Everest, but you don’t set up camp and live there like U2 or Coldplay.” The bands that were once considered Travis’s peers were clearly modeling themselves after U2, most notably Coldplay. Their sophomore album, A Rush of Blood to the Head, aimed squarely for the cheap seats before the band subsequently worked with Brian Eno and entered a dubious Euro-pop phase (which is sadly still ongoing). Bands like Starsailor and Keane similarly shifted toward dancier, more electronic sounds, as did the surprisingly hunky Snow Patrol, whose members would eventually duet with Taylor Swift and date Courtney Cox.

“Because pop culture and the content machine is the way it is, I’m sure there will be a ‘justice for millennial blandness’ movement along soon,” Snapes posits, and she’s right that the incessant thinkpiece churn can make an unsung hero of anyone. This year has already seen reappraisals of Hootie & the Blowfish and Sublime. And beyond The Man Who’s 20th anniversary, Doves are supposedly cooking up in the studio, Stereophonics still have enough cultural cachet to headline the Latitude Festival (as a replacement for Snow Patrol), and Keane are back and sounding like the Killers.

Travis themselves are on the verge of releasing their ninth studio album, one that Healy believes will do them more justice than their previous two, Where You Stand and Everything at Once. “No excuse is a good excuse,” he says. “But now that the kids are getting older, there’s space and you can move away from them and concentrate on the record.” Or, his reasoning is that he’s aged out of dad rock. With Healy’s decades-spanning commitment to sincerity, there’s no reason to doubt his claims that he’s lived a charmed existence and that he prefers their modest profile in 2019. And when he rewatches the 1999 Glastonbury performance these days, Healy doesn’t see Oasis or Radiohead or the Verve, but rather a fulfillment of his goal to be the biggest tiny band in the world. “I felt … my god, we’re a good little band. That’s all you can really aspire to be.”

Ian Cohen is a writer and registered dietitian living in San Diego. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Spin, Stereogum, and Grantland.


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