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Alternative rock group

When the punk-inspired, indie rock quartet Hard-Fi released its self-recorded 2004 album Stars of CCTV, members hoped to peddle enough CDs to press another 1,000 copies. Instead, the rough-cut album garnered so much attention that the British band entered a bidding war with record labels, eventually signing with Atlantic. This debut album rose to number one on the United Kingdom album charts, and in the headlining tour that followed, Hard-Fi sold out five nights in a row at London's famed five thousand-seat Brixton Academy, a feat matched only by such acts as Bob Dylan, The Clash, Massive Attack, and The Prodigy. Stars of CCTV sold 800,000 copies and produced 5 hit singles, paving the way for a sophomore release, Once Upon a Time in the West, in 2007.

The band members themselves were surprised by how quickly they had developed a following. "I thought our music was good, but didn't know how it was going to go down with everyone else," guitarist Ross Phillips told Oxfordshire County Publications writer Tim Hughes. Phillips went on to say that Hard-Fi's grippy song lyrics played a huge role in the band's success. "The words are about everyday life and problems. Some bands try to be deep and meaningful, but that doesn't really mean anything. With us, however, people take out what they like. There's something for everyone, with big choruses and dirty guitars."

Band Founded in Suburban England

Lead singer/songwriter Richard Archer served as the driving force behind the formation of Hard-Fi. In the late 1990s, the Staines, Middlesex, England, native had been a member of the alternative rock band Contempo, which released a number of singles through London Records. The group disbanded in the early 2000s. Penniless and with no work prospects, Archer moved back into his parents' home in Staines, feeling defeated. "It's so hard to put together a new band," he told California's East Bay Express. "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." To make ends meet, he took a job as a prep cook for an airline catering company at Heathrow Airport. He also began writing new songs, which took on a new direction. Influenced by the working class surroundings of Staines, Archer penned songs about suburban alienation, being broke, and working menial jobs.

Determined to record his work, Archer began networking and was able to put together a band filled with Staines natives. Archer's former producer, Mick Jones of The Clash, suggested he hook up with drummer Steve Kemp. Speaking to Alex Kocan on the Left Lion Web site, Archer described the process: "We then put an ad in the NME [New Musical Express magazine], Loot and all the places to find musicians. Loads of people got back to us. None of them were right. Some of them literally couldn't play a note."

Archer and Kemp continued their search for bandmates and eventually found guitarist Ross Phillips working in a local record shop. They also picked up bassist Kai Stephens, who was working as an exterminator for Rentokil, which proved handy because the band was able to use his work van to transport their equipment to gigs. In addition, they often escaped parking tickets because authorities thought they were on official business. The name Hard-Fi was a throwback to a previous musical era. It came from Jamaican reggae musician and dub pioneer Lee "Scratch" Perry, who ran a studio called The Black Ark in the 1970s. Perry, a producer for Bob Marley, called his sound "Hard-Fi."

Debut Album Became "Cash Machine"

Soon after forming, the Hard-Fi band members rented an abandoned taxi dispatch office in Staines to serve as a rehearsal and studio headquarters. Eventually they recorded the nine tracks that would become the basis for their first album, Stars of CCTV. The mini-album included a funky mix of songs that merged Britpop, blue collar rock, punk, and late 1970s funk. The album name is a reference to CCTV—closed circuit television—a surveillance system prevalent in London, especially in the city's subway system. Because the songs were recorded in an empty office and not a traditional studio, the tracks contain the sounds of airplanes flying overheard, as well as highway noise and couriers passing by, sometimes whistling tunes.

Archer liked the unpolished quality of the album. "It's not perfect," he told the East Bay Express. "Some of it's quite loose, but still it hits a nerve. Its humanity wasn't produced out of it." The band spent just $1,500 to self-record the mini-album, which was released in the United Kingdom in September of 2004 by Necessary Records, an independent label.

"Cash Machine," the album's opener, earned abundant radio play. The song makes reference to stubborn cash machines that tell customers they have no money in their accounts, a song about being broke but not realizing it until the ATM is visited. In addition to air time, Hard-Fi scored prominent festival slots in the months following the release of the album. Hard-Fi's quick trip to success shocked band members, who did not expect their self-recorded, makeshift studio album to take off so quickly. "We just set up in there, brought a PC in and recorded the whole album ourselves," Phillips told the Toronto Star's Ben Rayner. "We were signed to a tiny little label which was one bloke and one other band. And then all of a sudden, we were getting played on national radio and every review we got was just phenomenal. … Every day it seems to be getting a bit bigger."

Signed Deal with Atlantic Records

Hard-Fi garnered so much attention and radio play that record labels came running. Hard-Fi signed a licensing deal with Atlantic in December of 2005, and then retooled some of their songs. While Atlantic wanted to ship Hard-Fi off to a nice studio somewhere, the band members insisted they re-record in the same empty cab office to keep the feel of the originals. The reformatted album, with four new songs, re-entered the UK charts at number four in January of 2006 and soon climbed to number one.

Hard-Fi's fan base kept growing, as "Hard to Beat," "Cash Machine," and "Living for the Weekend" received enviable play time on radio stations and became favorites on the club and pub circuits. The ska-inspired "Hard to Beat" is a rollicking party-starter, while the synth-pop anthem "Living for the Weekend" addresses dead-end jobs and the release that a weekend of partying can bring. The album included a full mix of genres and topics. "Better Do Better" has a tinge of reggae, while "Middle Eastern Holiday," complete with driving rhythms, invokes the Iraq war and is reminiscent of the combative rock of The Clash. The album received a nomination for the Mercury Prize, which is given to the best UK/Ireland album of the year. The band also found itself in the running for two Brit Awards.

Hard-Fi's guitarist attributed the band's genre-mixing, category-defying sounds to the diverse backgrounds of its members, and the fact that they are not afraid to listen to one another and try new things. "We're more into trying to get the spirit of stuff rather than just copying our influences," Phillips told Rayner. "Like, we tried to get the spirit of ska or the spirit of punk instead of just nicking a bassline or something from a song we liked." During the tour that followed their debut album's release, the band was joined onstage by Paul Weller, Billy Bragg, and former Clash frontman Mick Jones.

Steady Sales with Sophomore Album

Hard-Fi released a second album, Once Upon a Time in the West, in 2007, and it went straight to number one. The title came from the 1969 cowboy movie of the same name. Hard-Fi chose the name to pay homage to Italian composer Ennio Morricone, who created the movie's soundtrack. Once Upon a Time in the West was recorded at the same venue as their first album. This time, however, Hard-Fi also procured the room next door and was able to convert the space into a more standard studio. Archer also used the same friend, Wolsey White, to serve as his co-producer.

For the Record …

Members include Richard Archer (born in 1977 in Staines, Middlesex, England), vocals; Steve Kemp , drums; Ross Phillips , guitar; Kai Stephens , bass.

Group formed in Staines, Middlesex, England, 2003; released self-recorded debut album, Stars of CCTV, Necessary Records, 2004; signed licensing agreement with Atlantic Records, 2005; re-released Stars of CCTV through Atlantic, 2005; released Once Upon a Time in the West, 2007.

Addresses: Agent—Ian Huffam, c/o X-Ray Touring, Nena House, Ste. A, 77-79 Great Eastern St., London, England EC2A 3HU. Record company—Necessary Records, P.O. Box 28362, London, England SE20 7WH. Record company—Atlantic Records, 1290 Ave. of the Americas, 28th Fl., New York, NY 10104. Web site—Hard-Fi Official Web site: http://www.hard-fi.com.

The eleven tracks on Once Upon a Time in the West moved beyond Staines, presenting a larger worldview. "Television" slams society's fixation with reality TV programs, throwing in lyrics that rhyme "television" with "new religion." "Can't Get Along (Without You)" addresses a lost love with an almost old-time rock 'n' roll feel. The semi-acoustic "Help Me Please" addresses the death of Archer's mother, which occurred before the band released its first album, while the downtempo "I Shall Overcome" is dedicated to Archer's late father. Speaking to Andy Welch of the Liverpool, England, Daily Post, Archer lamented that his parents did not live long enough to witness his success. "My mum and dad had always stood by me, so now was supposed to be the payback time for them—now was supposed to be the time for me to send them on holiday, to get their driveway paved, you know, do all the little bits and pieces I'd planned for them, to say thank you."

Once Upon a Time in the West made waves for its music and also for its cover art. The CD's yellow sleeve was devoid of a picture and simply carried the band's name and the CD's title in small block letters. In larger type it said, "No Cover Art." When the single "Suburban Knights" was released, its cover featured only the words "Expensive Black & White Photo of Band Not Available." The covers reflected the band's antiestablishment feel and its members' desire to remain focused on the music, not the sales.

Sought to Expand Fan Base

Besides touring in the United Kingdom, the band has performed in Japan and the United States. They appeared at 2006's Lollapalooza and played on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Speaking to the Boston Herald 's Shilpa Ganatra, the band's drummer spoke about his desire to gain a foothold in the U.S. music market. "Every single band in the world wants to break America," Kemp said. "They all know they do. If they say they don't, they're just scared of failure. We do want to break America and we'll work to make it happen." Unfortunately for Hard-Fi, every time the band goes to the United States to perform, it must leave behind bass player Stephens, whose visa has been denied over a previous drug offense.

While band members are proud of their success and look forward to the future, Archer told Cameron Adams of Australia's Courier Mail that he hopes Hard-Fi can serve as a role model for wannabe musicians. "We bodged this record together and it got to No. 1. I hope people in bands see what we've done and think, ‘We can do that, too, we can get a laptop and make an album’, because you can."

Selected discography

Stars of CCTV, Necessary Records, 2004; reissued, Necessary Records/Atlantic Records, 2005.

Once Upon a Time in the West, Atlantic, 2007.



Billboard, September 1, 2007, p. 50.

Boston Herald, March 31, 2006, p. E7.

Courier Mail (Australia), September 21, 2006, p. 61 (M+M).

Daily Post (Liverpool, England), September 28, 2007, p. 8.

East Bay Express (California), February 1, 2006.

Evening Standard (London, England), May 15, 2006.

Music Week, July 7, 2007, p. 6.

Northern Echo (Darlington, United Kingdom), August 30, 2007, p. 4.

Oxfordshire County Publications, December 16, 2005.

San Diego Union-Tribune, June 8, 2006, p. 17.

Sun (England), August 31, 2007.

Toronto Star, January 19, 2006, p. J3.

West Australian (Perth), September 22, 2006, p. 8.


"Alex Kocan Spoke to Hard-Fi," Left Lion, http://www.leftlion.co.uk/articles.cfm/id/652 (March 3, 2008).

"Biography," Hard-Fi.com, http://www.hard-fi.com/biog.html (March 6, 2008).

—Lisa Frick