Johnny Borrell: Saint or sinner?

Johnny Borrell - Razorlight's bombastic frontman - has never been everyone's cup of tea. Prone to saying stupid things like, "firstly, I'm a genius" and pulling out of unfinished gigs with creative excuses such as "extreme stage fright", he has been a gobby mainstay of the rock landscape since the group's rousing, New Wave-inspired 2004 debut Up All Night. But quite what he has done to deserve his latest kicking is anyone's guess.

If you missed yesterday's announcement of the shortlists for this year's NME Shockwave Awards (for which trading was briefly halted on the London Stock Exchange) Johnny Borrell has found himself in a number of unloved categories. He is nominated, along with Tony Blair, Pete Doherty, George Bush, and Gerard Way as the NME's "Villain of the Year". And he is nominated, along with Lily Allen, Russell Brand, Pete Doherty, and Faris Rotter as the NME's "Worst Dressed".

Razorlight, meanwhile, are nominated as "Worst Band", and their second album, Razorlight (Five Stars, The Independent) is nominated as "Worst Album".

For Borrell, the awards, voted on by readers of the NME - those anorakish chroniclers of indie chic - mean this: the cool kids don't fancy him any more. For a man with such impeccable indie credentials, that must hurt a little. But he can take solace in the fact that Razorlight's second album, released in July, has sold 1.2 million copies. The first, meanwhile, has just past the million mark, meaning Razorlight is now among the biggest bands in the world. What the grubby teenager at the Dublin Castle in Camden thinks of him is, perhaps, of secondary concern.

Except, Johnny Borrell was once that grubby teenager. Born in 1980, Borrell grew up in Muswell Hill in north London. His parents divorced when he was young, but little Johnny still made it to Highgate School - a well-endowed private school just up the road. It was there that he met and became friends with John Hassall, the former bassist with The Libertines, and now the singer with Yeti.

Borrell's own interest in music swelled in his teenage years. At 13, (already, in his own words, "ambitious"), Borrell became the lead singer of a band called Oblivion, with some older boys from school. Oblivion split citing creative differences and too much geography homework, but Borrell was still desperate to inveigle his way into London's music scene. And, when he left school (with a burgeoning interest in narcotics), he headed straight for the noisy boroughs of Camden and Dalston, where he met, among other people, Pete Doherty. "At the end of the 1990s, Johnny used to hang around Camden with Pete and that crowd," says one former Libertines fan. "At that time Johnny was the crazy one, doing heroin and what not. He also took to wearing a bowler hat. Meanwhile Doherty was pretty clean living and concentrated on his music. At some point, they swapped roles."

In his late teens and early twenties, Borrell plied his Dylan-esque brand of acoustic folk around London's smaller venues, and occasionally filled in on bass for The Libertines. At one gig in 1999, supporting The Libertines, Borrell caught the eye of Roger Morton, then The Libertines' manager, who thought "this kid's got something", and decided to take him on. It took three years, and various experiments with gospel singers and tambourines, for Razorlight to emerge as a recognisable ensemble, but when they did, they turned heads immediately.

"It's a horrible one for me," recalls Saul Galpern, of Nude records. Galpern was one of the first people to see Razorlight play, but declined to sign them. "Roger [Morton] took me out to a very dark place in east London, some place I'd never been to in my life. We ended up on this estate, and Razorlight were in this room, and we saw a rehearsal. I saw [Johnny] and I thought instantly that this guy has so much charisma he's going to be a star.

"It was about 2002, and the band didn't even have a name. I met the guy and he reminded me of Mark Bolan [of T-Rex]. [He had] the swagger, and the confidence, but, deep down, was kind of a quiet guy. That's what Bolan was like. And I liked that in an artist, I didn't have a problem with it. He had a spark about him, and was very hungry. All he really said was 'I want to make a record'."

In 2004, amid reviews that ranged from the enthusiastic to the messianic, Razorlight released their debut album. And, with a sudden onrush of new fans, toured. Razorlight set out to conquer the world, but looked as if they were going to shoot themselves in the foot first. It was, for instance, that year that Borrell started giving vainglorious interviews, most notably to the NME. One Borrell response, that January, is so full of self-parody that it deserves quoting in full.

"Firstly, I'm a genius," started Borrell. "Musically, culturally, everything. I've written two more albums. I'm writing a film in which I'm going to star in and I'm writing the soundtrack. I can't stop. I've got stacks of songs, it's just a case of getting them out there. It's like [Bob Dylan and The Band's] The Basement Tapes: it took years for people to hear them... Compared to the Razorlight album Dylan is making the chips. I'm drinking champagne."

This was all good, knockabout stuff, and entirely in keeping with the time-honoured traditions of rock. The great frontmen, from Jagger to Bolan to Iggy Pop, have all waxed narcissistic when presented with a tape recorder and an audience. For Razorlight's legion of fans, it only made their idol more worthy of idolatry.

Indeed, Paul Stokes, of the NME, believes Borrell's interviews of the period bear scant relation to his real personality. "When you put a tape-recorder in front of Johnny Borrell, he seems to put on an interview voice, where he makes grand claims," says Stokes. "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. [But off-tape] he could be a lovely bloke."

The problems started when the press, after welcoming beginnings, appeared to turn against Borrell. A series of stories appeared in the music journals and the gossip websites claiming that, due to a hectic touring schedule and Borrell's diva-ish demands, Razorlight were on the verge of a split. The lead guitarist Bjorn Agren, in particular, was said to have irreconcilable differences with the lad from Muswell Hill. And, when Borrell walked off stage, five songs into a gig in Denver, the doom-mongerers predicted the beginning of the end. (Borrell had, in fact, suffered a minor breakdown due to consuming too much alcohol at altitude - an incident that London magazine Time Out memorably chronicled in their "Denver Wallop" profile.)

Borrell has admitted, though, that "the band is an intense, fragile, fucked-up alliance. I can't pretend otherwise. There are some days when I can't even look at them, and others when they do three or four good things." But Razorlight have not split, and Borrell's "fragile, fucked-up alliance" is still together, despite the fact that the singer will sometimes asked to be put in a different hotel from the rest of the band.

In the past year, Borrell's profile has risen to new levels. He has campaigned, with RED, to heal the scars of Africa. He was so moved by Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth that he recently appeared on the front page of The Independent voicing his support for the March Against Climate Change. His tunes are rarely off the radio. So why does everyone suddenly hate him?

"There is a culture in this country," says a friend of the singer, "where we knock success. Johnny Borrell has made no bones about wanting to be the biggest and the best act in the world. That kind of attitude is not a British thing. And so they knock him for it."

Stokes has a different theory. "I think the first album, and parts of the second album, are amazing. But Razorlight, from the word go, had more ambition than just to be indie darlings. His ambition was always for Razorlight to be the biggest band that they could be, and he's basically done that. But in the process, he's moved them out of the indie sphere. Right now, the readers of NME think he's left them behind, but it might be that Razorlight go on and make another couple of records, and then, like U2, get reappraised."

What is clear is that, right now, Borrell is persona non grata among the NME-reading hordes. His removal to the upper echelons of the rock-celebrity pantheon has ruptured his relationship with the fans that got him there in the first place. But if he's so universally hated, why has the single "America" spent 22 of the last 28 weeks in the top 10? And why did his Earl's Court gig in April sell out in 10 minutes? A few text votes do not a villain make.

Here's Johnny...

On his talent...

"I'm the best songwriter of my generation. I've got more songs and spirit than anyone else."

On his band mates...

"There are some days that I can't even look at them, and others when they do three or four good things in a row and it's great. I love them and hate them equally."

On his three biggest mistakes...

"The first two were probably haircuts - I had a James Dean phase when I was 18 and the 1950s quiff didn't really suit me."

On his attractiveness...

"I don't think it's my job to be minxy."

On performing at Live8...

"If 20,000 children die of poverty every day and if I'm worrying about my credibility or somebody else's perception of my fucking credibility, that would be the height of bullshit."

On drugs...

"The glamourisation of all drugs is wrong. I was a smackhead when I was 16. Who cares?"

On a good gig...

"There's no better hangover cure."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own