Johnny Borrell: Saint or sinner?
Wednesday 31 January 2007
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.
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."
"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."
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