Ricky Wilson – circa 2007
“There’s a million combinations / And this is one” – ‘Listen To Your Head’ (Nick Hodgson, Ricky Wilson, Andrew White, Simon Rix, Nick Baines)
Ever thought a band selected the wrong songs for an album? Perhaps they omitted one of your favourites or gave away a really good song to some other artist instead of recording it themselves. Ever thought a band sequenced an album in the wrong order? Perhaps that slow song should have been saved until the end or the catchiest tune should have been first. British band Kaiser Chiefs gives customers the option to make their own choices. On 3 June 2011 they post twenty songs on their website. After auditioning a one-minute preview of each track, fans are invited to choose the ten tracks they want for their own version of the band’s fourth album. After paying for the album, the consumer can then download their customised edition and even choose which version of the artwork they want for the packaging. It’s a novel idea, and representative of the band’s quirky sense of fun.
Around 1989, Nick Hodgson (born 20 October 1977), Nick ‘Peanut’ Baines (born 21 March 1978) and Simon Rix (born James Simon Rix, 18 October 1977) meet at St. Mary’s Catholic High School in Menston, West Yorkshire. “We were in the same class,” recalls Peanut. The boys are around 11 years old. United by a common interest in music, they put together a group with other school friends. “I always wanted to be in a band,” asserts Nick Hodgson. Simon Rix remembers they played cover versions of old soul music tunes. Peanut claims they started writing their own songs when they were 15 or 16. ‘Man On Mars’, a song Kaiser Chiefs eventually record in 2011, is begun by Nick when he is only 17.
After finishing High School, Peanut and Simon Rix leave to attend university in 1996. Nick Hodgson remains in Leeds, attending Trinity & All Saints University College in Horsforth. While doing a media studies course, Nick Hodgson finds time to visit the local nightspots. He attends a night dedicated to 1960s mod music, ‘Move On Up’, at The Underground in Leeds. There, he meets Ricky Wilson (born Charles Richard Wilson, 17 January 1978) and Andrew ‘Whitey’ White (born 28 August 1974). Ricky Wilson has been getting a few gigs as a disc jockey at nightclubs in the Leeds area. Hodgson, Wilson and White decide to form a group. This outfit is dubbed Runston Parva, a purposeful misspelling of Ruston Parva, the name of ‘a small East Yorkshire hamlet.’ The band gets off to a stumbling start when they can’t score a record contract.
After Peanut and Simon Rix return home from university, Nick Hodgson introduces his old chums to his new associates, Ricky Wilson and Whitey. In this formation, Runston Parva is reincarnated as, simply, Parva. “We weren’t thinking of success, we were thinking of crowds,” Nick explains in an attempt to justify their focus on gigs rather than a recording contract. Ricky Wilson qualifies this: “I didn’t want it to be a hobby; I wanted it to be something we did all the time.” In any case, Parva proves more accomplished, obtaining a record deal with Beggar’s Banquet on their Mantra label. Parva releases one album, ‘22’ (2003), in June. This disc includes tracks like ‘Heavy’, ‘Good Bad Right Wrong’ and ‘Hessles’. When Mantra is closed down, Parva is dropped.
This begins a difficult period for the band. The stigma attached to being a ‘failed’ band weighs them down. Two things reverse their ill fortune. Firstly, rather than putting up with being Parva, that group who lost their record deal, they rebrand themselves as Kaiser Chiefs. The new name is based on that of a South African football team, Kaizer Chiefs. The second factor is new manager James Sandom, who, after being ‘tipped off’ about Kaiser Chiefs and attending one of their gigs, agrees to take them on. Sandom arranges a contract for them with B-Unique Records.
The internal power structure of Kaiser Chiefs is difficult to assess. All their songs are jointly credited to the five members. So far as can be determined, they do seem to be a fairly democratic crew. This is also borne out in their musical arrangements where ensemble playing is favoured rather than the band having any one musical star. Their line-up is: Ricky Wilson (vocals), Whitey (guitar), Peanut (keyboards), Simon Rix (bass) and Nick Hodgson (drums, vocals). Perhaps the left-handed Whitey’s guitarwork or Peanut’s keyboard textures are more pronounced, but the rhythm section is also well up in the mix. Vocalist Ricky Wilson seems to be the most comfortable with the celebrity side of the job, wearing stylish clothes and playing the likeable lad. “I take myself less and less seriously every day,” he swears. If there is one person guiding the band though, the most likely candidate is Nick Hodgson. He is the link between the band’s two sets of friends. He often seems to chafe at being in the background as the drummer. Nick also plays piano, is the band’s alternative lead vocalist on a handful of tracks, and is described as their ‘lyricist’ – though Ricky Wilson seems to pen the words at least as often. Nick Hodgson gives the impression of being the most driven and ambitious member of the group.
Kaiser Chiefs are said to be ‘primarily inspired by new wave and punk rock music of the late 1970s and 1980s.’ The Jam are cited as a point of reference, and this fits with not only the punk / new wave influence, but their teenage covers of soul tunes and the mod night where three of the band met. (The Jam were often pegged as mod revivalists.) However, the main characteristic of Kaiser Chiefs is their uncanny ability to write catchy tunes. These ‘earworms’ burrow into the listener’s consciousness and just don’t let go. They are as maddeningly addictive as an advertising jingle, but more intelligent and satisfying.
The first single released by Kaiser Chiefs is ‘Oh My God’ (UK no. 66), issued in 2004. It is reissued in February 2005 (UK no. 6) and is hailed as ‘a startling achievement.’ Ricky Wilson states that, “’Oh My God’ was the second song we wrote [as Kaiser Chiefs].” Whitey’s guitar cuts through clattering discord to a yoghurt-smooth keyboard line. “You work in a shirt with your name tag on it / Drifting apart like a plate tectonic,” the lyric wryly observes. [Earth’s continents rest on tectonic plates and the slow movement of these plates over centuries is responsible for continental drift.]
‘Oh My God’ is included on the first and finest album by Kaiser Chiefs, ‘Employment’ (2005) (UK no. 2, US no. 86, AUS no. 60), released in March. ‘I Predict A Riot’ (UK no. 22, 2005 re-release UK no. 9) is a song ‘inspired by [Ricky] Wilson’s days as a club DJ in Leeds, England.’ “Watching the people get lairy / It’s not very pretty I tell thee / Walking through town is quite scary / And not very sensible either,” confides Wilson in his vocals. Over haunted house keyboards and a shuddering rhythm he warns that “A friend of a friend he got beaten / He looked the wrong way at a policeman.” Such acts are provoking the public revolution foreseen in the song’s title. ‘Everyday I Love You Less And Less’ (UK no. 10) is a hilarious inversion of standard romantic pop songs. “I can’t believe once you and me did sex / It makes me sick to think of you undressed,” splutters the singer. The compulsive melody is carried by the simulated computer blip of the keyboards and a chugging guitar line. Block percussion, a thumbed guitar and pipping synthesiser tones introduce ‘Modern Way’ (UK no. 11). Ricky Wilson’s hungover vocal mourns his dilemma: “My brain is not damaged / But in need of some repair,” before shrugging, “There’s no point sitting / Going crazy on your own.” ‘You Can Have It All’ (“If that’s alright”) is a comparatively classy and loving effort. “It’s not my fault / I don’t care / I don’t regret a single thing,” the narrator decides while cautioning his love “No, you can never hold my hand in public.” ‘Employment’ is sensitively and expertly produced by Stephen Street (who worked with britpop darlings, Blur) and Stephen Harris.
The second album by Kaiser Chiefs, ‘Yours Truly, Angry Mob’ (2007) (UK no. 1, US no. 45, AUS no. 4), issued in February, is of similar quality. Spearheading the album is the band’s greatest single, ‘Ruby’ (UK no. 1): “Let it never be said / That romance is dead / ‘Cause there’s so little else / Occupying my head.” Ricky Wilson says, “’Ruby’ is kind of about how the best thing about when you meet someone is that very first moment when you meet – then it’s all downhill from there…” Whitey contributes a great guitar riff to ‘Ruby’ and Nick Hodgson’s chanted “Na, na, na” lodges mercilessly in the memory. Even the video, with a giant-size band looming over a tiny town, is clever and inventive. ‘Everything Is Average Nowadays’ (UK no. 19) bemoans the lack of highs and lows but, musically, it swerves like a downhill slalom skier. The lyrics plunge on, noting “There’s not much to believe in / Left up on the shelf / So get your coat, we’re leaving / We’ll just do something else.” The (sort of) title track, ‘The Angry Mob’ (UK no. 22), is a foot-stomping piece with hardened guitar. The rule of the crowd is highlighted in the violent exchange, “You’ll raise a glass until you raise a fist or two / And get a shopping basket wrapped ‘round your head.” ‘Heat Dies Down’ and ‘Highroyds’ are similarly spirited takes on modern life. ‘Love’s Not A Competition (But I’m Winning)’ (UK no. 112) displays confusion over the manners of romance (“The trick is getting you to think that all this was your idea”). Stephen Street again serves as producer.
Mark Ronson takes over production duties for ‘Off With Their Heads’ (2008) (UK no. 2, US no. 55, AUS no. 12), released in October. Mark Ronson is probably best known for producing ‘Back To Black’ (2006) by latter-day pop soul diva Amy Winehouse. Earlier the same year, he produced ‘Alright Still’ (2006) by Brit rap and pop singer Lilly Allen, and she sings backing vocals on a couple of his album’s tracks, including the first single, ‘Never Miss A Beat’ (UK no. 5, AUS no. 47). This energetic number urges “Take a look at the kids on the street” but notes that their attitude is “It’s cool to know nothing.” The fatalistic sing-a-long ‘Good Days, Bad Days’ (UK no. 11) finds Ricky Wilson in insouciant form, suggesting “Follow the underdog / Hold on his collar tight / This city loves a scrap / One day it’s gonna bite.”
Kaiser Chiefs fourth album, ‘The Future Is Medieval’ (2011) (UK no. 1, AUS no. 25), is launched via their website on 3 June. It is acknowledged that many music fans download individual songs rather than buy whole albums. “We kinda wanted to control that a bit,” admits Nick Hodgson. This is the genesis of the idea of making twenty songs available so fans can download any ten of them to create their own version of the album. An ‘official’ version, with twelve tracks, is issued to record stores on 27 June. This includes ‘Kinda Girl You Are’, a track that was unavailable for download since it had not been completed. In this song, the lyric says “Then I saw you in a centrefold / You were looking cold” and the guitar shivers in sympathy. Also on this album is ‘Man On Mars’, the long-gestating song sung by Nick Hodgson that was begun when he was 17. One of the best tracks on the disc is ‘Little Shocks’ (UK no. 179) (“What the driver saw / Through the letterbox at number four”) with its anarchic guitar, clinking bottles, and an arrangement that seems to wobble backwards. Just to confuse matters further, for U.S. release ‘The Future Is Medieval’ is retitled ‘Start The Revolution Without Me’ (2011) and has a revised list of tracks from the twenty in the initial offering. It also includes a new number, ‘On The Run’. The album (in either incarnation) is produced by a medley of different individuals: Tony Visconti, Ethan Johns, Owen Morris and Nick Hodgson.
‘Souvenir: The Singles 2004 – 2012’ (2012) (UK no. 19) includes a British release for ‘On The Run’ and offers another new track, ‘Listen To Your Head’.
On 4 December 2012 Nick Hodgson announces via his on-line Twitter account that he is leaving Kaiser Chiefs. In response, Simon Rix tweets: “Good luck to Nick with his plans. I can exclusively confirm we will still be collaborating on pints in pubs.” Hodgson’s departure is confirmed on the Kaiser Chiefs website. On 7 February 2013 Vijay Mistry is announced as the band’s new drummer.
“The reason Nick [Hodgson] left was because he thought it [i.e. Kaiser Chiefs] was broken. Maybe it was a little bit broken but we decided to fix it, not throw it away,” claims Ricky Wilson. “We had to learn to write a record. We’d never done that on our own before. The third and fourth records were so disparate in what they were about, even I didn’t know that they were about.” The re-focus for the band results in ‘Education, Education, Education & War’ (2014) (UK no. 1, AUS no. 65), an album produced by Ben H. Allen III. This set yields the hard, but bouncy, single ‘Coming Home’ (UK no. 31), which is co-written by the four remaining original members of the band.
‘Stay Together’ (2016) (UK no. 4) is the first Kaiser Chiefs album on Caroline Records. It is co-produced by Kaiser Chiefs and Brian Higgins. The first single is the lightly melodic ‘Parachute’. In the lyrics of this self-sacrificing pop song, vocalist Ricky Wilson sings, “If we’ve only got one parachute, I give it to you.” ‘Hole In My Soul’ is quirkier with choppy synth-strings. The hole referred to in the title, “Could only be filled by you again…It can never be filled…by anyone else buy you,” according to the lyrics. Neither ‘Parachute’ nor ‘Hole In My Soul’ reaches the singles charts. Although ‘Stay Together’ appears to do quite well on the British album listings, it ‘quickly slides off the charts’ and ‘continues the band’s commercial downfall.’
It was a long road to success for Kaiser Chiefs. “We [had] like seven years of total rubbish [before fame],” said Nick Hodgson. Still, the experience stood them in good stead for the heady days that followed. The band’s musicianship, cheeky charm, and embrace of new technology marked their distinctive style. Their ‘supercharged Class-of-1977 power pop…electrified the British press.’ Kaiser Chiefs were ‘quintessentially British, without pretension, and most importantly a whole lot of fun.’
- wikipedia.org as at 8 April 2013, 1 January 2015, 7 January 2017
- ‘Face Culture’ interview at the Pinkpop Festival in Landgraaf, Holland (7 July 2011)
- You Tube – interview with Nick Hodgson and Ricky Wilson (16 November 2009)
- allmusic.com, ‘Kaiser Chiefs’ by Michael Sutton as at 2 May 2013
- artistdirect.com (1 July 2008)
- ‘Later With Jools Holland’ – U.K. television program (11 July 2009)
- lyricsfreak.com as at 29 April 2013
- Jim Gellatly’s In Demand Uncut – Scottish radio program (16 July 2012)
- ‘The Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia newspaper) (6 December 2012) p. 49
- ‘Herald Sun’ (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia newspaper) – ‘Back with the Bit in his Teeth’ – Ricky Wilson interview conducted by Cameron Adams (17 April 2014) p. 42
- azlyrics.com as at 9 January 2017 [no publisher listed]
Song lyrics copyright Imagem Music Publishing
Last revised 12 January 2017