FRANK TURNER – The First Three Years

FT3After the demise of hardcore band Million Dead, frontman Frank Turner embarked a relentless touring schedule.  Playing most nights throughout 2006 helped build a strong and devoted following for his semi-acoustic folk-punk material.  Appearing both deeply personal yet accessible, his debut album ‘Sleep Is For The Week’ – released in January 2007 – attracted very positive  responses.   His second release ‘Love, Ire & Song’ saw a huge leap in terms of quality and although not a huge seller upon its release, this album set Turner on the route to stardom.

In between recording material for those two full length albums, Turner recorded plenty of excess material which saw release as EPs, stand-alone  singles and b-sides, material which by this time was already becoming harder to find.  At the end of 2008, Xtra Mile Records compiled all of this material and issued it as a full length release ‘The First Three Years’, a release that provides a pretty compelling listen in its own right – some material being equal (or better) to the songs chosen for the “proper” albums.

Originally featured on his ‘Campfire Songs’ EP, ‘Thatcher Fucked The Kids’ sees Frank at his most outspoken.  A scathing piece about how the 80s sell off completely screwed any potential for Britain to flourish again – after all, what do we do to shape Britain and raise the economy when Thatcher already sold everything? – this song is so biting that once heard it’s never forgotten.  Perhaps more importantly, the message doesn’t fade on repeated hearing.  Thatcher may long have  long stepped down by the time of this song’s release, but her legacy still looms large.  The opportunities for future generations are slight. Apparently the kids in Turner’s town are ‘bastard little shits’ who are likely to nick his wallet and keys. He also mentions the ‘man in the suit who won’t lift a finger’.  A very selfish and bleak picture, and at the root of it all is the Tory legacy of everyone for themselves and the fact that once the richest of the rich were settled, they “kicked away the ladder” for the rest of us so we could never advance.   Set to the kind of hard acoustic backdrop befitting Billy Bragg circa ‘Talking With The Taxman About Poetry’, this is a sharp observational piece, the epitome of folk-punk and worth the price of this collection alone.  [While the anti-Thatcher message here can be viewed as extremely left-wing, Turner himself has since claimed to be a “classic libertarian”, meaning he’s not necessarily always as far left in his views as this particular song suggests.  Neither is he  supportive of Tory ideals as an erroneous article in a UK broadsheet once accused.   Regardless of whether you choose to agree with his political views, of course, Turner is an absolutely superb writer; the stark realism and relatable heartbreak within the bulk of material on his 2013 album ‘Tape Deck Heart’ only further confirms this .]

The full-band arrangement of ‘Nashville Tennessee’s is very effective with its mix of folk-rock musicality and punk attitude.  Frank sounds fantastic as his natural style blends with a softer backing vocal, and as always, it’s his upfront voice which hits the listener first.  However, subsequent listens highlight a particularly fine musical backdrop, where the bass is warm, the chords rise and fall in a simple but especially effective way evoking the themes of travel and movement, over which occasional mandolin lends an extra folksiness.  Another road song, the rolling ‘Sea Legs’ tells the story of never-ending touring, with Turner’s lyric left to carry the weight of the piece, since musically it’s a relatively simple quasi-waltz.  The end results are fun, but nowhere near as enjoyable as the angry ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The One of Me’, a tune that brings Billy Bragg and occasional Joe Strummer and Levellers influences upfront.  Frank’s arrogance coupled with a brilliant, shouty chorus makes this an instant classic; the refrain of “bored of this town and bored of these people” is one which sticks, particular for any listeners who happened to grow up in small places with no real forward motion.  Musically, it’s another standout: while Turner could have delivered this in a Bragg fashion (all shouting, guitar and practice amp), he chooses instead to give things a more sophisticated send off his backing band are really pushed to the max.  The fifties-eque rock ‘n’ roll drums are particularly effective throughout, while occasional electric guitar twangs compliment Turner’s own acoustic rhythms.

There are times where Frank’s punk roots aren’t as obvious. While brilliant and earnest, a stripped back version of his former band’s ‘Smiling At Strangers on Trains’ doesn’t always have the impact of it’s earlier counterpart. While still clearly a good song, without the urgent drum part of the original recording, it almost seems an entirely different beast.

On ‘Sunshine State’ and ‘Cassanova Lament’, his softer musical side allows his acoustic guitar work to be the main focus (although the former retains some lyrical sharpness). Here, for those who somehow doubted, it becomes clear, that in addition to being a man with big opinions, he’s also a great storyteller and musician.  The finger picked style on the former has a real sense of urgency and complexity, while the latter results in something quite lovely as it collides with Turner’s earnest vocal delivery.   In fact, the only time ‘The First Three Years’ misfires, is on a cover of the traditional song ‘You Are My Sunshine’. Just Turner and his acoustic, it’s gentle and drenched in sadness, but like most versions of that song (Bryan Ferry’s grandiosely arranged version included), it’s best avoided.

…And that brings us to the subject of cover tunes, since this disc features a handful more of those.
Smudge’s ‘Outdoor Type’ seems a natural choice for Frank with its acoustic pop approach, while renditions of Bad Brains’ ‘Pay To Cum’ and Black Flag’s ‘Fix Me’ are far more interesting – the latter being slowed down to a menacing crawl. While Black Flag’s original recording remains one of hardcore punk’s most energetic and enduring recordings, the sheer aggression and speed masks the actual lyric.  Here, taken at a slow pace with an acoustic backdrop, the lyric of pain and what is essentially a cry for help sounds quite harrowing.  Also featured is a really effective acoustic rendition of Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’, which, despite Frank approaching it with voice at full volume at various points, still sounds rather frivolous and fun.  It’s a great way to finish a largely enjoyable trawl through Turner’s off-cuts – after all, it can’t always be about angry political stances and semi-autobiographical romps.

Although ‘The First Three Years’ features material recorded at different times in different places, it feels surprisingly coherent (largely due to huge chunks of it being just a man and an acoustic guitar).  While first-time listeners would be best advised to check out ‘Love Ire + Song’ and ‘England Keep My Bones’ first, this compilation also contains some tracks that are every bit as vital.

[‘The Second Three Years’ – a companion piece containing a bunch of later EPs, comp tracks and non-album cut – was issued in 2012]

January 2010/August-October 2012/July 2013