The easiest thing to do would be to label The Courteeners a ‘cult’ band, or claim they’ve got a ‘niche’ audience, but in truth I think it’s something much more basic and instinctive than that. Universal themes such as love, loss and disillusionment aren’t the topic areas your average Northern male is usually comfortable exploring, but when they’re entwined in to the body of a song that they can sing and drink along to, coming from a band that they can identify with, pre-existing barriers are lowered to an unprecedented level.
While every band has their own target audience, and knows who they’re supposed to appeal to, you get the impression that The Courteeners almost stumbled in to theirs, never having decided to tailor their material for any specific market. Their first record, St Jude, was released in to a saturated indie market, still riding high on the crest of the Arctic Monkeys wave. While most bands of that time of a similar ilk, Milburn, Little Man Tate et al, had their brief moments in the sun and fizzled out of steam after an album or two, The Courteeners flourished. Emotionally repressed males, 14 to 40, had an outlet previously unavailable, and a Northern figure in Liam Fray to make them aware sensibility was acceptable.
Whilst questions may be asked – and often are – of their recorded material from a critical perspective, what isn’t highlighted is the experience they create as a live band. In the flesh, The Courteeners are a completely different beast, extracting passion and atmosphere from their crowds usually reserved for the terraces of football grounds up and down the country. While the lazy tabloid term ‘lad band’, usually foisted on to the shoulders of outfits such as Kasabian, would do them a complete disservice, it’s hard to deny that the sweaty, beer fuelled singalongs that accompany their live performances aren’t reminiscent of those created by guitar bands of the past.
The criticism levelled at them is often done so by press and critics that rarely allow themselves to be fully encapsulated by a band anymore. Do they admit to being influenced by fellow Manchester bands such as The Stone Roses and The Smiths in a borderline cliché fashion? Yes, they do. Are they fiercely proud of where they come from, talk in a regional accent and fail to shy away from expressing their opinion? Of course, welcome to the North of England; pussyfooting is frowned upon around here. In truth, The Courteeners are band that it’s easy to sneer at, and it probably makes for a more entertaining article if you chose to do so as well; but if you’re taking issue with a band that are making honest music without pretension in a bid to stay loyal to the fans that buy their music, you begin to toe the fine line between being a snob and a critic.
Their three records to date, St Jude, Falcon and Anna, are all born out of the same principles and include the similar ingredients to one another, but they’re different enough sonically to shy away from the accusation that they’re all much of a muchness. Other bands born in Manchester, namely Oasis, are constantly derided for spending their career trying to remake the same seminal and successful album over and over again, but in the case of The Courteeners, that simply isn’t the case. The bands front man, the aforementioned Liam Fray, has been vocal in his desire to push the boundaries of the band as much as possible without distorting any of their goals as a band. Again, unlike Oasis, who’s idea of pushing their boundaries was to try and sound more like The Beatles on The White Album or give Gem a go on his sitar, The Courteeners aren’t a pastiche of any other band, subconsciously or otherwise.
The band, as stated, are a unique entity. They have the ability to sell out the MEN Arena or a four show long residency at the Manchester Apollo in minutes, and still have the anonymity to walk down the street and have 95% of the people they rub shoulder with clueless as to who they are. Like I started by saying, they aren’t the biggest band in the world, and they probably never will be either, but I don’t think that makes a blind bit of difference to the band themselves or their fans alike. Their appeal, their unique selling point, their entire success stems from the notion that they’re as likely to be seen selling out venues as they are down the pub with their mates. Northerners love an everyman, and Northerners love their own. They’re good lads making good tunes, and there’s little more your average audience asks for up here; the fact that they can all play a bit and the songwriting is above average is merely a bonus.
So the next time The Courteeners announce a tour and you think about looking down your nose at it, I implore you to get in the crowd in Manchester, Leeds or Liverpool and experience the band in full force, it might just go someway to changing your perception of them. If not, as the band say themselves “We are judged on every single thing we do / We could not care less, cos’ we are us not you”.