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Understanding Franz Ferdinand

London — "This band is the savior of indie rock." These words are written at the beginning of each year, about yet another new band, and often become an epitaph rather than an introduction. These words have been written about Franz Ferdinand, whose debut album, Franz Ferdinand (Domino/Sony), was released in the UK in early February (and in the U.S. a month later). This time they ring true.

The fresh young faces of Franz Ferdinand's members have grinned at us from covers of NME; they've "done" the "Later… with Jools Holland" show, guest edited for the Guardian newspaper, stormed the NME Brats Tour in January, and even played an acoustic set in a car park for several hundred fans locked out of yet another sold-out gig. All of this because of an indie album (since picked up by Sony in the U.S.) which has yet to drop out of the UK Top 40 — where it shares company with the likes of Usher, Will Young, and Anastacia — since its release in February. How can these four Glaswegians possibly live up to the hype? Sensibly, by performing critically good music and continuing to do so in the teeth of media frenzy.

Franz Ferdinand, formed in Glasgow, Scotland, started as the germ of an idea at the end of 2001, the band members coming together with loads of pretension to be a band but very little practical skill. The story goes that singer Alex Kapranos had been given a bass guitar, and needed to figure out how to put it to useful purpose. As the band members fell into place, they swapped instruments along the way, and eventually settled on the lineup of Kapranos on guitar and lead vocals, Bob Hardy on bass, Nick McCarthy on guitar, and Paul Thomson on drums. Their first gig, in May 2002, was arranged as part of an art exhibition entitled "Girl Art," organized by students at the Glasgow School of Art. Eventually, they arranged their own rehearsal studio in Glasgow, and dubbed it "The Chateau"; with their first rave-style party in December, they were shut down and the space abandoned, but other rehearsal spaces were soon found. They landed a record deal in June 2003 with UK independent label Domino, perhaps best known in the U.S. for being the company that released Clinic's acclaimed albums.

Once they were signed, Franz Ferdinand’s rise in England was truly meteoric. Their first single, "Darts of Pleasure," was released on September 9, 2003, and charted in the UK Top 10 a week later. Press interest developed after a blistering set performed at the Domino 10th Anniversary Show in October 2003 and a tour opening for Hot Hot Heat, and they were selected to perform as part of the NME Brats Tour in January/February 2004. Their second single, "Take Me Out," was released January 2004, and was preceded by two hysteria-infused London in-store appearances. In what is usually a fallow period in the release calendar, Franz Ferdinand are shaping up to be the hottest new band of the year.

It's when you witness the band live that the key to their UK success becomes apparent: it's all about sex. Their recent UK tour gave a select few just that chance to witness their appeal: after shows exclusively in smaller halls, their anticipated London show at the Astoria was heaving, frantic, beer-stained, and crammed to capacity.

Franz Ferdinand don't promise much on first appearance: more or less physically anonymous, they arrive on stage similarly clad in drainpipe trousers, but Kapranos stands out in his pinstripe button-down shirt, skinny white belt, and sparkly pointy shoes, looking just as fey as a lead singer should look. Without any by-your-leave of introduction, just an almost unintelligible mutter of "We are Franz Ferdinand," they are off into their first song, "Cheating on You," amidst mad screams, pogo dancing, and the flashes of press cameras from the pit.

"Cheating on You" couldn't have simpler lyrics, but there is a pull and tug to the desire: "Goodbye girl, you know you want me/ Goodbye girl, yes I'm a loser/ Goodbye girl, you know it's only love." With slithering and sexy melody, and a fantastic disco cymbal and drum track, it's impossible not to dance to it. The Franz perform with dispatch, and with barely an intake of breath continue song to song, but with the opening chords of "Matinee" (their current UK single), introduced by Kapranos as "a song about skyving off," pandemonium breaks loose, and the audience sings throughout the entire song.

And how can the audience not swoon with Kapranos singing threateningly "You take your white finger, slide the nail under the top and bottom buttons of my blazer, relax the fraying wool, slacken ties and I'm not to look at you in the shoe, but the eyes."

Kapranos is certainly sexy, but he's also smart, and I think that's part of the appeal as well. He had a stint as a guest editor for the Guardian newspaper, traditionally viewed as a liberal, arts-minded independent broadsheet. And Kapranos recently lectured as a guest speaker at Edinburgh University, addressing the issues relating to Internet music file-sharing. Not bad for a rock singer.

"This is a song about the dreary things in life," explains Kapranos, as the band launches into "Jacqueline," a song about the workplace and desire, where "It's always better on holiday/ So much better on holiday/ That's why we only work when we need the money" but dreary had never been so sexy before, replete with chunky guitars, and a song structure stripped to musical essentials.

During "Take Me Out," a distillation of desire in a nightclub, the audience knows (and sings) the words so loudly that Kapranos can't even sing it for laughing, so he motions the crowd to sing into his microphone. Franz Ferdinand are intense upon their audience's surrender, at times playing so fast that it's a wonder they haven't yet spent themselves after 20 minutes. How can you not fall in love with a band so intent on making love? Kapranos sings in "Darts of Pleasure": "I know that you will surrender/ I know that you will surrender/ I want this fantastic passion, we'll have fantastic passion."

There's nothing new about this band, but to say so is to miss the point: neither has anyone done what they do so well in recent history — indie-rock music you can dance to. New Order most famously mixed guitars with a dance beat, but references to Gang of Four, Big Audio Dynamite, A Certain Ratio, and even Adam Ant with his flamboyant sexuality can be found. These days, the number of bands following in this trend will now fill a compilation: The Killers, Pink Grease, Interpol, Radio 4, Chicks on Speed, and more. Compared with the anodyne pop music of the English charts of the moment, Franz Ferdinand are a much-needed "proper band," with a darker edge to both their music and lyrics.

And for "the ladies," Franz Ferdinand are the consummate gentlemen of the movement: retro in mood, with lyrics eminently sexual and dapper, and always backed by their addictive, sizzling beat, designed, as Alex Kapranos has stated, "to make girls dance." And, finally, to make girls (and boys) who love indie music able to dance again. — Andrea Parra [Monday, June 21, 2004]

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