In 1956, John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre. Set in a claustrophobic Midlands bedsit during the then-present day, its uncomfortable setting and low-key plot centre around the interpersonal powder-keg of a volatile marriage. It was realist where theatre before had been more romantic and fantastical, and was the first play to be described as “kitchen sink drama.”
Kitchen sink drama is a thoroughly British mode of expression. These days, it takes its most mainstream form in soaps like Eastenders and Coronation Street, where working class characters experience all manner of domestic trauma (but rarely move out of the shows’ cursed locales, riddle me this?). But in a more spiritual sense, I think it can be defined in moments wherein the ordinary feels exhibitionist. Kitchen sink drama is having an affair and saying “I’m having an affair,” it’s shagging in a car park and laddering your tights as you pull them back up, it’s smoking a fag with shaking hands and it’s sordid goings-on in a Travelodge off the M1. Its rich, palpable sensibility is so irresistible that it could never be confined to stages and screens: some of Britain’s best kitchen sink dramatists, of course, are musicians.
Titans of the form include Jarvis Cocker and Paul Heaton (of Pulp and The Beautiful South respectively), both songwriters from the north of England with a knack for saying a great deal using explorations of the everyday. Their work is threaded through with fables told in the language of net curtains and three piece suites bought on finance; throwaway lines like Cocker’s “Your name was Deborah / It never suited ya,” and Heaton’s “Think of you with pipe and slippers / Think of her in bed / Laying there just watching telly / Think of me instead,” are alight with normality, domesticity, and desire, far preferable to anaemic half-declarations of love, loss or both.
Cocker and Heaton are still enjoying long careers, though reached their arguable peaks in the mid-1990s (Pulp won the Mercury Prize in 1996, while The Beautiful South’s first Greatest Hits collection Carry on Up the Charts was the second biggest selling album of 1994). And while it might have taken them a while to pass on their baton, a decade later, some successors showed up. By the end of 2006, Sheffield’s The Long Blondes had added their name to the kitchen sink canon, pulling listeners into their world of disappointment, lust, old Hollywood devotion and TV dinners with a curl of vocalist Kate Jackson’s lip.
The Long Blondes’ first album Someone to Drive You Home was released in November 2006. Interestingly, Arctic Monkeys – also from Sheffield and, as early tracks like “When the Sun Goes Down” prove, no strangers to kitchen sink drama themselves – released their landscape-changing debut Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not in January that year, and what followed in guitar music was a flood of lad bands who couldn’t live up to the Monkeys’ standard. The Long Blondes, however, offered something different. Led by Jackson and guitarist/songwriter Dorian Cox, this was a five-piece rock band which leaned heavily on the musical style of 60’s girl groups, as much influenced by Phil Spector as they were by their counterparts in indie (for proof you can look pretty much anywhere in their catalogue, but best to stop off at their anti-carol “Christmas is Cancelled,” a “Be My Baby”-adjacent festive lament that froths with the grim melodrama of lyrics like “No mum don’t worry about me / I’ll just have fish and chips for tea”).
Even from their initial releases, The Long Blondes had a strong sense of self. The song “Giddy Stratospheres,” which would eventually appear on Someone to Drive You Home, was only their third single, released in 2004, but it’s striking in its stylisation. Jackson’s teasing vocal – like a tongue in your ear – wonders why the male subject of the song stays with his “boring” girlfriend: “Watch movies with the lights on / Sit still, keep her tights on,” she taunts, her voice alternately a snarl and a pout. On another early B-side, 2005’s “Big Infatuation,” the references are all Bet Lynch on a dirty weekend in Blackpool, leaking surface-level glamour; “I’m the topper of the Holiday Inn / Smoking Russians and drinking Pimm's when he walked in / Static sheets of acrylic silk / My stocking tops clasped my thighs and held me in,” Jackson wails.
Tracks like these seemed to nail the band’s identity. From there, their universe only became more solidly realised, peaking on Someone to Drive You Home. Cox in particular, as The Long Blondes’ primary songwriter, created a curiously peerless sound and feel, flitting between references to movie lore and starlets (the “Long Blondes” for whom the band was named) and bleak depictions of domesticity, the former revving up the latter with drama and intrigue.
Their songs were mostly about love and relationships, but told through literary images that bristled with meaning outside what was actually said. One of the best examples of this appears on Someone To Drive You Home’s final track “A Knife for the Girls,” as Jackson asks: “In a back room in Harehills / When you said I was a superstar, what did you mean?” She doesn’t have to say anything else; it’s all there, already unfolding in your imagination. The seedy flat in inner-city Leeds, the girl with more buttons undone than she’d like, the older man with a camera telling her she’s everything. As with Heaton and Cocker, Cox employs the art of suggestion to tell The Long Blondes’ stories of quiet despair and chips for dinner.
The band weren’t totally caught up in these narratives of their own making, though: sometimes they looked to the camera, telling their listeners that they knew exactly who they were. The song “Once and Never Again,” about a bad boyfriend and self-harm, nodded towards their established subject matter (“Another drama by the kitchen sink tonight”), while on “You Could Have Both,” the centrepiece of Someone to Drive You Home, a spoken interlude by Cox and Jackson states: “I was in full-time education when I got scared of the future / And I’ve only got a job so I don’t disappoint my mother / It’s like I’ve painted myself into a social corner / But that’s what happens when you listen to Saint Scott Walker, on headphones, on the bus.” While this is relevant to the rest of the track, it’s also about The Long Blondes’ influences, and their resulting equal immersion in American retro, and uneventful British domesticity. Their self-referencing made them seem even more clever: listening to them often felt as wordy, vivid and complex as reading a novel, and there hasn’t been a British rock band like them since their separation.
In 2008, The Long Blondes released their second album Couples. Later that year, Cox suffered a stroke, and the band called it a day (Cox is now well and continues to make music). The question of their legacy is an interesting one, because nobody has really picked up their mantle. They were an odd band in the sense of their deep idiosyncrasy: they had an intense sense of style, a crucial part of which was their understanding of the ways that normal life can (and should) be made alluring and affecting in art. For this reason, in my mind, they’re directly linked with Heaton and Cocker, and with no antecedents in guitar music (though there’s an argument to be made that there’s plenty of similarly elevated ordinariness in the UK’s other great love, grime), it seems fair, almost ten years since their break-up, to memorialise them as what they are: British rock’s last great kitchen sink dramatists.
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