The Curious Case Of Jonny Borrell

Very few modern rockstars divide opinion like the Razorlight frontman. Here's why...
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The thing with Jonny Borrell is, we all want to lamp him.

There’s just something about him that gets people’s tits up. Even his fans. Even me. I mean, I love Jonny Borrell but sometimes I want to lamp him.

It’s the attitude, isn’t it? The tousled braggadocio of the Muscles Of Muswell Hill. Ever since the famous NME interview where he declared himself a ‘genius…Musically, culturally, everything.”

Later in this sentence he drew a comparison between the songs he had in the locker to that of Bob Dylan’s. “Compared to the Razorlight album, Dylan is making the chips. I’m drinking champagne.”


Then there’s the time he said he said he looked like he’s from Mars and was “somehow compelling,” or that he was part Iggy Pop and part Paul Simon, or when he was younger he claimed he had a “Johnny Thunders haircut and a girlfriend in every part of town.”

 Swaggering self-aggrandisements trip from his tongue like sweet, tropical rain on a summer parade. A parade that he is leading, playing the drum, trumpet and spinning that twirly stick thing. Topless.

They are delivered with, at least on the surface, the confidence of one that is either truly deluded, truly talented, or truly lucky. Where is he in all that? Probably a mixture of the three. He had a public school education, a Highgate upbringing. Most would say that’s pretty lucky. It’s the sort of childhood purists love to rile at, and  suggest gives him less of a right to have an opinion or make art (at least until you bring up Joe Strummer).

Is he deluded? Well, yes. Maybe. But to make a certain type of knee-sliding rock and roll, I’d argue being deluded is as much a requisite as a tight pair of jeans and Zane Lowe’s number on your mobile.

However, there is a sense that Jonny knew what he was doing throughout, that this persona wasn’t entirely un-fabricated. In a piece in The Independent, Paul Stokes of NME said, When you put a tape-recorder in front of Johnny Borrell, he seems to put on an interview voice, where he makes grand claims. But when you turn the tape-recorder off, there is a different Johnny Borrell, which is much more considered, and less prone to self-aggrandising statements. It seems that he's looked at other rock stars and seen how they made it.”

So Jonny, so self-aware. 

And so we come to the talent, because it’s often easy to forget that behind all the posturing, the moody TV interviews, that damn 'Wire To Wire' earring, is a man and a band that he’s taken through several incarnations of. The first thing to say is you need to forget about Razorlight’s second and third albums. I hate grandly dismissing bodies of work; work that people have poured life and blood and joy and infinite strife into. In the bigger scheme of things: what basis or right do I, a lowly blogger, have to judge them in the space of one sentence? I KNOW. Still. Bin them off.

The second record, self-titled, of course, was what took them away from the NME and into the world. Songs like ‘America’, ‘Who Needs Love’, ‘In The Morning’, were the sound of a band washing off washing dusty Dalston noses with Pol Roger, and had none of the youthful urgency of what they’d released before.

The third album, Slipway Fires, opens with a song called ‘Wire To Wire’; a preposterous 80s-aping power ballad that is quite brilliant, as long as you don’t get too worked up with couplets like, “She lives by disillusion’s glow/ We go where the wild blood flows.” The rest of the record, I would refer to my concluding point the paragraph before last.

Which leaves us with Razorlight’s first album, Up All Night and Jonny’s solo work. With the former, I don’t know whether it’s the fact that I was at university when it came out, but for me it will always reside on that blessed side of what they call the indie landfill.

While it was always a little too produced to have the earthy appeal of The Libertines (sorry Jonny), it brought a brand of new wave punk that was matched by few in terms of keeping a crowd relentlessly content. Tunes like ‘Vice’, ‘Rip It Up’, ‘Stumble And Fall, ‘Don’t Go Back To Dalston’ still do the business today. The whole album does, really.

Crucially, despite the posturing there was a sense of innocence to it all. Watch this video of them playing ‘Golden Touch’ on Parkinson, and the little bashful interplay between Bjorn and Jonny at the end to see what I mean. Their sights were set on ‘America’ but they hadn’t even conquered the Northern Line. Those sort of experiences were still a thrill and we gobbled it up.

Which brings us to Jonny’s solo work, specifically Jonny Borrell 1, which famously sold 594 copies in its first week of release. (His label actually sent out a press release confirming this. Cheers guys.)

Whilst many predicted that this spelt end for JB as we know him, I truly believe the opposite, and that in years to come it will be hailed as minor classic, something too complex for the Razorlight intelligentsia that wanted another ‘America’.

Because there really is nothing like his former band on here; on the contrary, it’s a natty collection of tunes that takes in everything from baroque, to lounge jazz, to calypso, to world, to good old fashioned MOR.

In some ways it’s very silly - check out the punctuation of Pan-European Supermodel Song (Oh! Gina) - but it feels to me like the sound of a man who’s finally living up to those boasts back in the days of Hard-Fi. Sometimes it does fall precariously into self-parody territory, but then hasn’t he always? Jonny is a man who, like it or not, will always draw the focus onto himself. That's the mark of a genuine frontman and if that makes you want to lamp him, well, he’ll probably just smile that wonky smile and lamp you back.

Jonny is playing at this year’s Forgotten Fields festival, that’s going down 7th - 9th August in Sussex. He’ll be playing a set with Razorlight and one with new band Zazou, so you can check out both old and new Jonny. There’s a load of other great bands playing too. You should get a ticket here. 

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