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Razorlight's Johnny Borrell is the latest star to suffer as a solo act
It's not a good month for Johnny Borrell. His debut solo album sold just 594 copies in its first week, failing to make the Top 100, a far cry from the mid-2000s when his former band Razorlight were one of the biggest UK bands, twice selling out the 10,000-capacity Alexandra Palace and headlining Reading Festival. Borrell was the band's epicentre, playing his role as a rock star, gracing the covers of NME and Vogue, and dating Kirsten Dunst. The band's final album 2008's Slipway Fires may suffered lukewarm reviews, but it still went to No 4.
The title of his debut solo album, Borrell 1, suggests that this is the first instalment in a series – that we should be expecting Borrell 2 and so on, à la Scott Walker releasing Scott, Scott 2, Scott 3 and Scott 4. Clearly, his label Stiff Records hadn't expected his album to fare so badly, although they have since released a tongue-in-cheek statement: "First-week sales of 594 make Borrell 1 the 15,678th best-selling album of the year to date."
Side projects are ubiquitous as band members seek to exercise other creative impulses that don't fit their current band's output, and no doubt the fact that Borrell 1 veered as far as it could from his band's stadium-friendly indie-rock anthems, incorporating MOR, French chanson and reggae, didn't help keep fans aboard. N-Dubz's Tulisa suffered similar commercial failure when she abandoned her band's urban sound with her debut solo venture, The Female Boss, last year, and failed to get beyond No 35.
Borrell's label might have been hoping him to enjoy success more akin to The Killers' Brandon Flowers, whose debut solo album, Flamingo, topped the chart in 2010, or Jack White with his No 1 debut solo album, Blunderbuss. But Borrell proves, as others have before him, that despite a frontman's fame, fanbase and even being the musical mastermind of a chart-topping band, it's not always easy to go solo. Mick Jagger's solo albums had nowhere near the success of his band's output. And, more recently, James Skelly, frontman of the loved band The Coral, released Love Undercover in June and has so far failed to replicate the success of his band whose last album, The Butterfly House, has sold 34,000 copies to date.
Often the musical mastermind of the band can't recreate that success alone. Bernard Butler couldn't cut it as a frontman, and Hugh Cornwell was more successful fronting The Stranglers. Dexys' frontman Kevin Rowland released two commercially disastrous solo albums – The Wanderer in 1988 and My Beauty in 1999; the latter was said to have been his label Creation's lowest selling release. Perhaps Borrell is smarting that the band he fronted and created remains more popular than him, but a band member often needs their band's brand behind them.
You have to respect Interpol's frontman Paul Banks who went solo in 2009 under a pseudonym, Julian Plenti. "The first record had to be done under an alias," he explained. "I was off put by the notion of pushing my solo work at people by capitalising on the notoriety of the band and just marketing my record to Interpol fans."
Perhaps Borrell should have listened to the wisdom of Chris Martin who once explained why he wouldn't step outside of Coldplay. "What makes a great frontman is the great people behind him… If Bono or I were to release solo albums, they'd be cringeworthy. It's still the same person singing, but the gang aspect makes you acceptable. If you take me out of the band, I can't dance, I can't do what Beyoncé can do. I'm only surviving on enthusiasm and collective chemistry. All frontmen become shit as soon as the perceived least important member of their band leaves."
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