Britburbia 

Hard-Fi turns a bleak suburban existence (and £300) into blue-collar rock gold.

Three years ago, Richard Archer could only watch as planes passed over his hometown of Staines, Middlesex, the dreary place he'd just returned to following his father's death. Nearby London Heathrow Airport had grown like a tumor, and now cast a bleak pall of jetwash over the gray suburban landscape.

Time to start a band, again.

Hard-Fi was still only a notion at the time, with Archer still reeling from the recent disintegration of his Dexy's Midnight Runners vs. the Clash band Contempo, courtesy of some mind-boggling label mismanagement. "It's so hard to put together a new band," he says. "If you're in a band, it has to be your whole life, and when Contempo fell apart, there was this big hole in my life. Suddenly I was thinking, 'Oh my God, what am I doing here?'" The new songs he found himself writing to stay sane took on a decidedly working-class tone, as Staines slowly became Archer's muse much the way New Jersey shaped early Springsteen.

But what about a band? Contempo's former producer (and Clash luminary) Mick Jones suggested drum-pounder Steve Kemp, while guitarist Ross Phillips was recruited from Archer's favorite hi-fi shop, and bassist Kai Stephens (who still can't get a U.S. visa because of a drug conviction back home) came prepackaged with the future tour van he puttered around in from 9 to 5 as an exterminator for Rentokil. Archer dubbed this motley crew Hard-Fi, the name dub pioneer Lee "Scratch" Perry used to describe his early work. The quartet then rented an empty mini-cab office in which to record a nine-track mini-album (Stars of CCTV) that would eventually be mixed in pubs, a van, and even a BMW. This DIY manifesto cost roughly $300, and turned out equal parts Britpop, late-'70s funk, and Sandinista-era Clash.

Itself named for the pervasive closed-circuit television and security cameras that have invaded Londoners' lives, Stars of CCTV scored Hard-Fi radio play and a quick seven-date tour that transformed them into the season's must-sign band. "When we got back to London after that, it was all flipping A&R guys, excited because we got a bit of radio play," Archer says. "They figured, 'If they can do this on their own, reckon what they could do with a big label behind them.'"

Hard-Fi's first single, "Cash Machine," quickly established the boys as heirs to England's long history of blue-collar rock from the Stones to the Specials to Madness, quite literally a song about uncooperative cash machines that don't want to pay up despite the absolute certainty you're not that skint (i.e., broke). "We've all been through that," Archer notes with a laugh. "You put your card in, but it says there's no money in there. You're sure it's wrong, though." The video was an exercise in skint filmmaking, too, as the band jumped a fence at the end of a Heathrow runway in order to film their Staines anthem with U2-esque aplomb. Inbound planes dropped in from above, thirty feet over Hard-Fi's heads.

Atlantic snatched the band up, and immediately pressured Archer to re-record Stars of CCTV "properly," whatever that means. "They said, 'You can go wherever you like, Abbey Road if you want,'" Archer recalls. "We said, 'You know what, we think it sounds great. We're really proud of it. If it's not broken, why fix it?'" The label might've taken issue with the record's sometimes audible drone of planes passing overhead (along with noisy couriers arriving and general highway noise), but Archer defends the accompanying burps of interruption. "It's not perfect," he allows. "Some of it's quite loose, but still it hits a nerve. Its humanity wasn't produced out of it."

Not bad for a band from Staines, a 2,000-year-old suburb whose almost-empty history since WWII has been punctuated only by a 1972 plane crash that killed 118 people. "That plane crashed behind my house!" Archer exclaims. "My next-door neighbor was a nurse and went and treated people. She wasn't right in the head for three years after that." Which effectively makes Hard-Fi the biggest thing to hit Staines since a plane crashed into it. It's not Jersey, but it'll do.

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