Six By Seven aren’t very well represented on YouTube, so for this band, more so than others, I’d strongly recommend checking out the ever-growing YG Spotify playlist, which you can subscribe to here.
So here’s where this thing finally gets interesting.
Six By Seven are the first band to be featured on Youth Groups that were never associated with a major record label. They are the first band to have had zero chart hits. They are also the first band I’ve covered in here that I still listen to all the time. These three facts are probably related in some way.
The band was from Nottingham, which was supposedly Britain’s Knife Crime Capital – and I remember reading that lead singer Chris Olley was mugged outside the studio when they were recording their essential ‘The Closer You Get’ album. This also makes sense, as Six By Seven were a band who always played on a knife’s edge, as if their lives depended on it. Their best move, but by no means their only move, was the slow build. They were the masters of gradually developing a song: starting with a looped guitar melody, then some quiet vocals, finding a comforting, but accelerating groove, getting faster and faster until the drums finally go BOOM and everyone’s heads explode.
‘The Closer You Get’ was my entry point to the band, and it knocked the wind from me. It still has that power, twelve years after it came out. The opening track ‘Eat Junk Become Junk’ serves both as a perfect curtain-raiser and a manifesto for the band itself. ‘Ten Places to Die’ and ‘My Life is an Accident’ just build and build to searing, white-hot finales. ‘Another Love Song’ experiments with loops and effects and really showcases Chris Davis’ superhuman drumming skills. They could play it breathlessly fast (‘Sawn Off Metallica T-Shirt’, ‘Don’t Wanna Stop’) as well as heartbreakingly pretty, on tunes like ‘England and a Broken Radio’ and the closing ‘100 & Something Foxhall Road’. The lyrics veered from wide-eyed optimism (“How can I lose, if I refuse to fail”), to the opposite extreme on ‘One Easy Ship Away’, with its crushing chorus that espouses various ways to kill yourself. Though the album isn’t an easy listen, it’s certainly a rewarding one. I can’t think of too many records where it feels like you’re getting pummeled by a maniac one moment, but hugging an old friend the next. After a break up in 2004, I walked around the Florida State University campus for nine straight hours, listening to this album on repeat. Not sure what effect I was going for, but it certainly helped.
After falling head over heels in love with ‘The Closer You Get’, I had to buy its predecessor, the band’s debut album ‘The Things We Make,’ which is good but not as good. That said, its best tracks are incendiary – check out the one-two punch on Side 2, beginning with ‘Brilliantly Cute’ which cannot wait to get out of the starting blocks but manages to hold off for 87 seconds before kicking in; followed by ‘Oh! Dear’, a song whose simple chorus (“Oh dear, my dear, I’m in love”) ought to destroy your heart forever. ‘Candleight’ is a great single, too, which hurtles to a thrilling climax.
Everyone that heard ‘The Closer You Get’ adored it. Unfortunately, hardly anyone heard it. Six By Seven watched while some genuinely terrible post-Britpop bands cracked the top 40 and got TV appearances. A guitar player left the band. Having caught up with the band’s discography, I could not have been more excited for album number three. In November 2001, I saw them in Camden, and had this to say at the time:
You’d think that no longer having two guitarists would mean the opposite, but tonight Six By Seven are incendiary. The songs from next year’s third album ‘These Days’ are just as intense as their previous ones. ‘American Beer’ experiments with tape loops and rocks. ‘Cafeteria Rats’ has the chorus ‘You’re a fucking disgrace’ and rocks. ‘Flypaper For Freaks’ begins with the line ‘I don’t owe you shit!’ and rocks. ‘Speed Is In’ also rocks. You may have seen a theme developing. Of the unreleased songs, only ‘The Way I Feel’ is anything short of outstanding.
When album three came out, it had been renamed ‘The Way I Feel Today’, and it mostly jettisoned the band’s talent for setting an atmosphere and slowly building tension. Maybe that’s an effect of losing a guitarist. But the album still managed to be just as good as ‘…Closer…’ all the same. ‘So Close’ was a throwback to the 6x7 of old, again taking its time to fully detonate. With lyrics like “I adore your conversation… You inspire my imagination,” fans were worried that Chris Olley might have finally cheered up, which would probably negatively effect the album. Not a problem. ‘Cafeteria Rats’ is a scathing look at London hipsters of the early aughts, the kind of people later targeted on ‘Nathan Barley’. There’s another killer one-two punch – ‘Flypaper for Freaks’ followed by ‘Speed Is In/Speed Is Out’ – which packs a lot of disgust, and tons of hooks, into five minutes. There’s a song called ‘Karen O’, which apparently has nothing to do with the singer of a New York band that was just starting to take off in the UK at that time. They made a video for single ‘IOU Love’ which featured aliens.
And then there’s ‘American Beer’ – a song build around a simple drum machine loop, where Olley’s guitar builds and builds, while he sings some of his most pained lyrics yet. By the time he’s screaming “Nobody told me it would be like this” again and again, I am destroyed. But there’s still more! The album closes with ‘Bad Man’, a two minute screed where he basically screams a cathartic apology for everything he has ever done. ‘The Way I Feel Today’ ends and you’re left in a daze.
Of course, the sudden influx of New York bands was all the music press was talking about by then, so the album did about as well as their previous two. To overlook one astonishing album from a band is sloppy, to overlook TWO is just careless. The band continued playing small rooms and failing to chart. After I moved to the U.S., they went through a few line up changes, changed labels, and continued to put out music for a while before calling it a day. My interest in them dropped off after I moved, as it did with most of the bands you’ll see here, but their album ‘04’ is pretty good. Chris Olley remains prolific, though, and you can hear his work here. Most recently, he’s recorded his ‘Nebraska’, an album called ‘The Death of Six By Seven’.
Before I go, let me tell you about the time my friend John and I interviewed Chris before a gig at ULU in London. Even if you had never heard of the band prior to reading this, hopefully by now you’ll have got the impression that Mr. Olley was, to say the least, a prickly pear. Also, John and I were – and remain – massive fans, so we were both nervous. To add to that, I got caught in the rain while walking to the Tube, so I was soaked and freezing when I met John. We reported to the tour manager who pointed to Chris and said “Wait til he’s finished eating his dinner. He doesn’t like to be disturbed.” Great. Our interview was stifled, tense and difficult. Chris gave only short responses, and clearly didn’t want to be there. He warmed up a little as we progressed, but he could not wait til it was over. “Angry… passionate… vitriolic” were the three words he used to describe his band, but he may have been talking about himself. That night the support band was British Sea Power, who – in keeping with the 6x7 narrative - have gone on to much bigger success. I left John to write up our interview, and here’s how he ended his piece.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, if you were in Chris Olley’s position, in the best band in the country, watching the undeserving ranks of indie mediocrity and substanceless vogue-rock zoom past you into millionaires row, or at least the middle reaches of he charts, while you haven’t got enough money to publicise your new single with a video, you’d be mad as hell too. And hey, Chris was probably really tired or something… Actually, forget what I said before… This was a breath of fresh air. I’m serious. There’s too much of that ooh-please-please-like-me-be-my-friend wankerdom going around at the moment, and that’s probably why there’s so much shit around, not just in alternative music, but popular culture in general. People have nothing to say, so they cover that up with beaming smiles and vacant eyes. That’s just insidious propaganda, making out that everything’s ok, when it clearly isn’t. Would you rather Chris pretended to be our friend? Like Fran Healy would have done? Or Chris Martin? Or the Queen fucking mother? Pretend to really care? In retrospect I’d have been offended if Chris had done that. I’d have lost respect for him. Art is about humiliation, anger, frustration and disgust, not happiness, contentment and good cheer. “A painting is not made to decorate apartments. It’s an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy,” said Picasso, who wasn’t exactly brimmed full of love for his fellow man when he painted “Guernica” and was inarguably a more worthwhile human being than Anthea Turner. I know I’m not making the best sense here, too much Cabernet Sauvignon maybe, not enough sleep, but the bottom line is we need more people like Chris Olley if we want rock music to remain a vital, necessary form of expression and not an artistically bankrupt pantomime horse.
I still hold hope that one day, indie fans everywhere will discover Six By Seven – a band who could do deceptively sweet love songs, ferocious rockers, and everything in between. – and they’ll gain some sort of cult hero status. If 42 really is the Ultimate Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything, then what does that make Six By Seven? Something truly essential, at the very least.