Tom Clarke: The Last Goodbye
The Enemy made an almost instant impact on the music world with their chart-topping debut album We’ll Live and Die in These Towns. But like many artists before them, the band struggled to replicate what they achieved with their impressive opening offering. Clarke and his fellow bandmates were still so incredibly young, the amount of pressure on them many of us wouldn’t ever be able to understand or appreciate. Clarke by his own admission struggled with that weight of expectation:
“By the time we got to the end of touring the first album and getting ready to write the next one I was aware that people liked us but that put so much pressure on me. Around that time I started to drink a lot because I felt this massive weight to perform and not let people down and deliver on every show. Our touring schedule was nonsense we barely had a day off. I just felt that we needed to perform and make every show better than the last one. There was just huge pressure and the way I dealt with it when I was 20/21 at the time was to drink a lot. I mean that works for a while but eventually, it catches up with you.”
Anything good in life usually needs time, The Enemy needed that time, they also needed to rest. Without a chance to breathe and being pushed back into a recording studio so soon after what came before was always going to end with a body of work that was going to suffer quality-wise. It becomes rushed and it becomes forced:
“It caught me off guard because we were constantly touring the first album. Then we played an XFM gig at the Brixton Academy, and we came off stage and the tour manager said we are off to the studio now. back to Wales. We got there but it became apparent that the record company and management expected me to write a follow-up record in a very short space of time, I suppose to maximise their return on their investment. The first record was big let’s get the next one out quick, but art doesn’t work like that.
“That first record wasn’t contrived it had just come from an honest place. So then going into a studio and being told you got x amount of time to do that again, and not very long. You wake up every day to go to a recording studio knowing that someone has paid a lot of money to write a song that day it really caught me off guard, I really didn’t deal with that situation that well. I don’t think it was a very good situation to put a songwriter in, especially a relatively inexperienced one. So to me the second record just felt rushed, it wasn’t as well considered as it could have been and I wasn’t really happy with it. There are moments on it I love, No Time For Tears I was really happy with, but the record as a whole I thought was unfinished.”
Music For The People wasn’t a disaster by any stretch of the imagination, as Clarke says himself there were good moments on it. No Time For Tears and Be Somebody which gets something of a sequel on Clarke’s upcoming solo album are the obvious highlights.
But overall it just lacked the consistency of the first album, an inevitable consequence of what was being asked of them. A bigger bolder feel to it for sure, but it felt rushed, as Clarke says incomplete, and the critics you could sense were lying in wait.
Musical history tells us that following a successful debut album is often extremely problematic, that so-called difficult second album. Expectations rise, and in that great British way, critics often only allow a brief honeymoon period. The mighty pen or a modern-day keyboard can quickly turn from an initial love to a narrative of we built them up we can now bring them back down again.
The music world was quickly changing. Mainstream radio largely abandoned guitar bands and switched to a playlist that they thought would attract a much younger demographic. Clarke needed a break, he took one, but many changes were taking place while the band took their self-imposed hiatus:
“We still went and toured it and the gigs got bigger and bigger. It got to number 2 which was beyond my wildest dreams when we started and I was still selling TV’s, but I got to a point where my drinking was getting worse and I just needed to stop otherwise I was going to completely burn out. Also at the time radio was beginning to stop playing guitar music, and we just said let’s take some time off and gather our thoughts. So we did, backed out of the limelight for a bit. But then behind the scenes at the record company changed and we didn’t like the new people that came in, we thought they were just a negative bunch of people.
“It turned into a dark place, we managed to get out of that contract, and we started working with some nice people at Cooking Vinyl. But by that time we had been out of the game for a bit, radio had by now stopped playing guitar music. The discussions were around the start of that third record was do we play the radio game, we had already seen how easy it is to lose that game on the previous record.
“The other option was to make an all-out guitar record knowing it wouldn’t get played, so that’s what we did. We recorded it over in the States. The problem was we knew the route to market was now much smaller and much harder. We really had to be super careful in the songs that we wrote and the sounds that we made, we had to make it quite middle of the road because it had to appeal to has many people as possible. I think it sounds middle of the road and is the album I listen to the least. We did the best we could at a difficult time, tough circumstances and a much smaller budget than before.”
Personally, I think Clarke is being a little harsh on the band’s third album Streets In The Sky. I found it more in tune with the successful debut, Saturday, Gimme The Sign and This Is Real lifted it beyond the standards of the previous album. But there was that feeling that The Enemy and others were swimming against the tide:
“It did ok but it just didn’t get radio, every guitar band was in the exact same situation by that point. The writing was on the wall for guitar music and it was the beginning of the end for indie bands at the time.”
It was also the beginning of the end for the band. Work began on the next album, Clarke wanted a new style to freshen things up a little. But without airplay, and despite the obvious quality of It’s Automatic, it was a last hurrah for the Coventry trio. Was Clarke aware the end was in sight?
“I think I did, Andy was more optimistic and Liam was sat on the fence. Management was saying we will get you on the Radio 1 playlist, but the common thread in the studio was this was really good but its a shame nobody will hear it.
“The thing is my musical taste is really broad and I just didn’t want to keep on making the same record over and over. After Streets In The Sky, to make just another guitar record that sounded the same with different songs just wasn’t exciting to me. If the songwriter isn’t excited then the songs won’t sound exciting. So it was exciting to do something different and I think you can hear that on the record.”
It’s Automatic was perhaps their finest record, the songs, the lyrics and the sound showed their versatility and their growing maturity as a band, and Clarke was clearly developing as a songwriter.
The Enemy gave it one last push. The live gigs still delivered, but they were hiding the hidden turmoil that was simmering deep within:
“I think we did two tours of that last record, but there were a lot of things going on behind the scenes. There were issues that the three of us didn’t agree on regarding our management and accounting, the boring stuff. By this stage, the band was a limited company. Cracks were starting to appear. So I said while we were making that record, look we disagree on lots of things. We have been in each other’s faces for the last 8/9 years at that point, and I am sick of wrestling for power. I said you have it your way, I will do whatever you tell me, I will do all the press you want me to do. We will go and make this record. I told them that I didn’t believe this record will work because radio isn’t there. I kind of said just because I don’t believe it will work it doesn’t mean I am right, I will play the game and do everything this management tells us to do. If it works brilliant and I will be glad to be wrong, but if it doesn’t work then we will need to have a serious chat about where we were going.
“It was becoming more and more difficult without radio to sell records and sell out gigs, and we definitely weren’t growing at that point. Management sort of us sat us down, at that time they had some really big acts, we were not top of their roster anymore, they said there is a limited amount of money left in this and we don’t know what the future is, and I said this is what I said a year ago. They said I don’t really recommend you carry on, Liam and Andy said ok. To be honest, I felt angry, I felt we have wasted a load of time and effort and I was ready to hang up music for ever, and I pretty much did.”
So after 10 years, The Enemy decided enough was enough in 2016. A farewell tour played out the final notes of the band. The gigs felt the same, and you wondered why it had to end.
But once radio left for something with less substance, very few indie bands survived. Indie music was still at its peak when radio pulled the plug prematurely, it still seems even now an incredibly short-sighted decision. For many bands, financially it just wasn’t viable anymore and left the majority with very little choice. It wasn’t just the financial side of it, it was also the emotional investment in recording an album.
It left Clarke a bitter man, broken even with little love or passion left for an industry that made him. Thoughts and tentative plans to move to America were made. But thankfully Clarke found what was missing, and the spark re-ignited once again.
The excitement in the voice at the end of the phone was apparent when discussing his first solo album. Part 3 of the interview will focus on that solo offering, The Chronicles Of Nigel.