'What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?' dropped amid a furore of hype the likes of which has seldom been attached to an indie band since. British music had just gotten over the mid-Noughties zeitgeist that was Arctic Monkeys and the charts were awash with the drab R&B/dance crossovers of JLS and The Wanted. But by the time 2011 ended, British music was beginning to bask once more in a golden period of indie-pop. From the likes of Peace, to alt-J, to Wolf Alice, all can trace their early success to the market appetite for indie that The Vaccines had launched.
The groundwork for this quiet indie revolution had already begun in the months previous to The Vaccines’ debut release. Arcade Fire’s seminal third album, 'The Suburbs', had just won the Grammy for Album of the Year, while The Maccabees and Bombay Bicycle Club were already two and three albums into their careers, respectively. But no other guitar band had arrived on the scene with as much anticipation as Justin Young and co.
The key reason behind this was the assured cross-over between their rough-hewn frenetic sound and their commercially compatible songwriting. No other band before them had managed to find that balance, creating music that was lithe and refreshingly direct, while also deeply rooted in a rich musical heritage.
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Initial singles, ‘Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra)’, ‘Post Break Up Sex’ and ‘If You Wanna’ grabbed a generation of left-of-centre teens by the scruff of their necks, opening them up to a sound that was both simple but sincere. I was one of those teens, slowly beginning to work my way through the vast history of musical culture. And while like everybody else my tastes have shifted in those ten years, the excitement I feel when listening to 'What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?' remains.
Their debut London show at The Flowerpot in Kentish Town was the biggest testament to the hype that was building around them. On the back of just one demo version of ‘If You Wanna’, they packed out the 300-capacity venue with a combination of eager fans and industry names. After 25 raucous minutes, their set was over and their reputation sealed. We were so impressed we even made the bold claim that their rise “will launch a 100 wannabes.”
The wider music press was equally as enamoured, thankful that a band made up of equal parts unhinged rowdiness and reverb-soaked nostalgia had come along to give indie a fresh direction.
When the album dropped, fans were rewarded with a collection of 12 songs steeped in rock history with an undeniable commercial appeal. ‘Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra)’ set the stall out early, borrowing from the emphatic brevity of Descendant’s 'Milo Goes To College'. ‘If You Wanna’ remains the most well-known track in the ten years since, and for good reason. Each line about a regretful ex finds a resonance in the conscious of anyone who happens to be listening, all played out against a backing of pure unadulterated release.
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The high points for me, however, are when the band delve into their softer side. ‘Wetsuit’, initially written about a friend of Young’s who had drowned, never loses the elegant charm I first heard in it, while ‘Family Friend/Somebody Else’s Child’ provides a touchingly heartfelt ending - aided inadvertently by the vocal polyps Young was suffering with at the time.
The unassailable peak for me, however, was ‘All In White.’ The darkest track from the album, Young even admitted on Twitter that he felt it was the “outlier”. Nonetheless, his depiction of jealousy and the resulting self-flagellation is vivid, swept along by a White Lies-esque backing packed with full-bodied reverb and rhythm.
But despite an album beloved by their fans and even a performance on Later... With Jools Holland before their debut single had even dropped, 'What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?' arrived to muted critical acclaim. Criticisms of tired rock tropes, weak lyrics and the band’s somewhat upper-class background were levelled by certain anti-vaxxers who found little inspiration in the 35 minutes of run time.
"'What Did You Expect from the Vaccines?' is a title that rather prompts the answer: I'm not sure, but it certainly wasn't an album that sounds like dimly remembered Bristolian shamblers the Groove Farm,” The Guardian rather unimaginatively stated in their review. While the likes of The Irish Examiner largely focused on the privileged upbringings of both Young and guitarist, Freddie Cowan, in their 2011 interview with the band.
But such disparaging reviews entirely missed the point of what the band were trying to do. Young made no bones about their intentions, telling Zane Lowe in 2011, “that’s all we’re trying to achieve really, youthful and direct guitar pop.”
And that’s exactly just what they did. Each song on their debut LP was an intense celebration of what makes pop music so good. Clear-cut emotions, catchy hooks and wonderfully pithy lyrics, all of which drove right to the heart of what indie music was missing at that time. What’s more, they were even aware of the double-edged sword of hype that surrounded them, describing it as a “poison chalice” in that same interview. They were simply here for the hell of it and that was fine by us.
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Their music appealed to the culturally-disaffected as much as it did the mainstream, with each single performing well commercially. As an audience, we knew that the music wasn’t going to tear down any boundaries and usher in a cultural reset. We were simply happy with what their music said and the way they went about saying it. And in that sense, that album came to represent a timeless moment.
That being said, Arctic Monkeys remain the last British band to definitively soundtrack a generation, but The Vaccines are the nearest thing we’ve come to since. Perhaps it’s the democratising influence of the internet that has spread musical tastes so far across the cultural spectrum, or maybe it’s just the general decay of quality guitar bands, but the phenomenon hasn’t been repeated in ten years.
On their three follow up albums - 'Come Of Age', 'English Graffiti' and 'Combat Sports' - The Vaccines have admittedly fallen away, struggling to achieve the same raw thrill of their debut. Instead plumping for a sound that is nuanced, perhaps, but lacking the dash and elan of their opening gambit.
But (apart from the somewhat outdated lyrics of ‘Nørgaard’) 'What Did You Expect From The Vaccines' stands the true test of time - namely, personifying the invigorating moment when indie got a shot in the arm. It’s safe to say that the relevancy of indie has taken somewhat of a sabbatical in recent years, but the bloom of innovative indie rock that followed the release of The Vaccines’ debut was nonetheless glorious to behold.
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Perhaps a good testament to the legacy of that album was the weird feeling I got when I saw that Vice had included ‘If You Wanna’ in their Top 50 Greatest Landfill Indie Songs of All Time. Not only did it feel unnatural for the song to be included despite arriving after the era of supposed ‘throw-away’ indie music, but that the band could even be considered in the same lowly bracket as The Pigeon Detectives, The View and The Enemy. This may simply be the opinion of a fan, but to lump them in as another band simply there to fill time is to entirely overlook the purpose of their music.
The press and the hype that accompanied The Vaccines’ meteoric rise has certainly been used as a tool to wound their legacy by some, while their most recent work can be used to prove the point. But to me and countless others, 'What Did You Expect From The Vaccines' was a brilliant bolt from the blue, introducing us to a sound and a feeling that we could call our own. Disparage them if you will, but that brief debut has done way more good than harm.
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Words: Ben Miles
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