For all of rock’s relative unpredictability, there are a few rules that rarely get broken: Pop songs have pop formulas; trends are meant to be exploited; and sea ditties will never, ever be popular. Sure, there are rare exceptions to every rule—Led Zep’s surprising hit with “Stairway to Heaven”; Nirvana’s rise out of hair metal’s sexploitation fantasy. But no one, including The Coral guitarist Bill Ryder-Jones, would ever have thought that rock’s last golden rule would fall like a spinnaker into the water. Mainsail songs are good for little more than forcing landlocked pirates to hoist their pints in longing. And for anyone who thinks water is only good for drinking, tales of nautical woe seem a bit silly.
But after England’s New Music Express named The Coral Britain’s best new band in the fall of 2001, subsequently launching the ska-soaked jib jig “Shadows Fall” to the top of the charts, rock’s last sacred law was shattered. It left more than a few critics and music geeks scratching their heads. Even Ryder-Jones isn’t sure how it happened. “Honestly, we’re still really confused by this whole thing,” he says with a slight chuckle.
What’s more confusing, though, is the fact that The Coral hasn’t faded after its odd initial success. In the two years following “Shadows Fall,” the Hoylake-based sextet has become one of England’s biggest prefix bands, despite its lack of punk riffs, ascots or ironic stares—there goes Rule No. 2. And like some airborne pathogen, the band is spreading. The group’s recent tour of Japan was a stunning success (“They brought us presents,” Ryder-Jones says.).
American critics just barely got feeling back in their appendages after the recent release of the group’s eponymous debut. And with an impending U.S. tour, The Coral will probably infect a whole slew of new, would-be scalawags.
The reason: Unless you still consider handmade tie-dye a viable fashion statement, The Coral are like nothing you’ve ever heard. A stunning mix of ’60s psychedelia, rock and ska, the band is like some Kool-Aid test flashback. Sounds swirl and spin. Horns blast out like fog horns. Songs double as lab creations. Throw in one bad Jim Morrison poem and Ken Kesey would have been blasting this stuff while he sitting on the bus tasting every color in the rainbow. (Oh, purple is so yummy.)
Sure, things occasionally get weird, like the Captain Beefheat-inspired closer “Calendars & Clocks,” a nearly 12-minute epic that takes saintly patience to get through. But the funky nostalgia of “Dreaming of You” and the Dead-heavy “Simon Diamond” more than make up for The Coral’s attempt at excess. And “Goodbye,” a picture-perfect rehash of ’60s psychedelic pop, full of intricate harmonies and borrowed Byrds riffs, is actually good enough to make you consider putting beads in your hair.
Ryder-Jones says the group’s unique approach was simply a reaction to the radio. When the band formed six years ago, the then barely teenagers were tortured by all the choreographed pop and snarling rap-rock that dominated the airwaves. “We went through this big phase where we hated everyone besides us and The Beatles,” Ryder-Jones says. “We hated the radio. We hated MTV. It made us not want to fit in with all the modern music that was going on. Basically, it’s a backlash from the pain MTV put us through, and this is what happened.”
That alone makes The Coral’s success a bit hard to swallow for Ryder-Jones. He’s no longer the outsider. He’s the guy on MTV—well, at least M2. As a result, Ryder-Jones and his mates have had to do a bit of soul searching to adjust. “We had four years as a band before anyone had heard of us. It was this private things we all knew was good, even though when we played gigs people would just stare at us,” he says. “That was just as fun as everything that’s happened in the last two years. But it’s been hard adjusting to the fact that people actually like us now. We have to accept that, and it’s kind of difficult.”
Even so, he admits that the ride will have been worth it if, sticking with England’s obsession with offering up copies of its latest and greatest bands, The Coral start seeing a few imitators popping up in the near future. He doesn’t think it will happen—but the idea is nice. “We’ve got no real style to rip off, unless people want to look like guys from various bands from 220 years ago,” he laughs.
“Wouldn’t it be boss if a whole bunch of bands come out with some shitty sea shanties sounds?” he laughs. “Can you image what that would do to music? That would be totally boss. It’s never going to happen. We’re a bit too complicated for people to copy. But it would be just the greatest thing.”
Ah, to dream.