A teenager in love –with the Fifties: Jake Bugg’s debut album is almost too good to be true
Jake Bugg: Jake Bugg. Mercury, out October 15
Plenty of noise has been made to mark the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ first single. And rightly so, because Love Me Do is as close as pop gets to Neil Armstrong setting foot on the Moon. It was both a small step and a giant leap: a modest little number and the start of the greatest recording career of all.
There’s just one problem. With The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan also celebrating golden jubilees, there is a danger that 1962 will become engraved on the public consciousness as pop’s Year Zero. In fact, all these titans started by looking back more than they looked forward.
Dylan borrowed tunes and themes from folk songs by Woody Guthrie and others. When Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who had been contemporaries at primary school, bumped into each other again as teenagers at Dartford station, they bonded over some blues LPs.
JAKE’S PROGRESS: The 18-year-old Jake Bug’s debut is a near
Two of The Beatles – Paul and Ringo – had fathers who worked on the cruise ships sailing in and out of Liverpool, and both men brought records from America back for their sons. The Beatles, like the Stones, were a covers band first, and when they did start writing, Lennon and McCartney followed trails blazed in the Fifties. ‘No Shadows, no Beatles,’ was George Harrison’s tersely eloquent tribute to the best British band before his. And the Shadows’ place in that sentence could just as well have gone to the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry or Carl Perkins.
Lest we forget how good the music of the late Fifties was, here comes a new voice who seems hellbent on reminding us. And the extraordinary thing is, he wasn’t born till 1994. Jake Bugg, an 18-year-old from Nottingham, is almost too good to be true: he could be a member of the skiffle band in the play One Man, Two Guvnors.
His look is that of a mid-Sixties pop star – dark fringe, cute face, a hint of attitude and vulnerability. But his sound comes straight from the late Fifties. Fresh, clear and uncluttered, it is mostly just a voice (nasal twang, crisp diction) and a guitar (a Telecaster, bustling, bursting with life). It’s as if Buddy Holly had grown up on a council estate in the East Midlands.
The 14 songs here are short, sharp and engaging. The fast ones are rock ’n’ roll with a touch of folk or blues, while the slow ones lean towards country. These are old, old forms, and many of today’s teenagers have given up on them, preferring hip-hop, dance music or indie. But Bugg makes them young again, and adds a dollop of contemporary jadedness (one song is entitled Seen It All) that takes him close to the best of Noel Gallagher.
The album gets off to a scorching start with singles Lightning Bolt and Two Fingers before slowing down and becoming more middling in the second half. If Bugg had restricted himself to his strongest ten songs, it would be a masterpiece, but consistency is a lot to ask of a teenager.
At his best, he is superb. ‘I drink to remember,’ he announces over a rhythmic strum, ‘I smoke to forget’: a self-portrait painted in two brushstrokes. When he sings of yesterday, he doesn’t tell us he believes in it; he holds two fingers up to it. Spending time with his album makes you want to see him live. He is doing a short tour in November and a longer one in February.
Jessie Ware, a gifted backing singer, has made an album of her own, Devotion, one of the Mercury Prize Albums of the Year. In the intimate surroundings of St Luke’s church, she was likeable between songs (‘great honour to be on the shortlist for the Mercurys, I watch it every year’) and a curious mixture during them, veering from powerful to tentative.
Ware’s album has done much better in the charts than her singles, which seems the wrong way round. The singles Running, 110% and Wildest Moments are her strongest tracks: sophisticated electronic soul, skilfully played by her supple three-man band. Warming to the task, she allows herself some unfettered fervour, which makes a nice contrast to the severe elegance of her look. It’s like watching Sade and the Banshees.
St Luke’s, London