Interpol: Turn on the Bright Lights – album review

Interpol – Turn on the Bright Lights (Matador Records)
10th anniversary edition
2xCD + DVD
Released 3 December 2012

They kick-started guitar music after the Britpop come down but how does Interpol’s debut fare ten year’s on? Cath Aubergine reappraises the record and takes us through the extras released as a tenth anniversary edition.

Tenth anniversary edition? Seriously? Not just of this, I mean of… anything. Sure, one of the few guaranteed income streams left in the music business is the heritage edition with bells and whistles, 3D gatefold, pip-squeezing bonus disk and cracker novelties shoved in a pretty box and sold for stupid pounds ninety-nine, but they usually wait for the thing to come of age. Twenty years maybe, twenty-five… but ten? That’s not, like, that long ago, really, is it?

Oh, but it is. In the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, the phrase “turn of the century” denoted a time unlike this one, a past as a foreign country, Victoria and the Empire. Now, in 2012, we are starting to use the phrase again for a time most of us remember quite well, and yet…phones were for phoning and texting (though for many the latter was still a bit new-fangled); you could download a music file but you’d be there all night as your dial-up landline shuddered under the strain; electronic communication was email or forum threads or live chat windows.

Out there in the wider world Milosevic was on trial for recent war crimes while Bush and Blair were plotting new ones, as we still struggled to get our heads round the fact that terrorists these days could fly aeroplanes into landmarks, and tried to settle on a standardised Western spelling of “al-Qaeda”.

Music was starting to get good again, though. It had been a long time coming.

The late nineties had not been kind to indie guitar music, as the Blairite coke-party of Britpop decomposed into dad-rock, lad-rock and several shades of beige. Travis asked why it always rained on them, as if it wasn’t blatantly obvious, while Starsailor and Turin Brakes…sorry, just nodded off a minute there. It felt like what they said 1974 felt like, in need of a kick up the arse. It got several.

The Strokes had arrived first, swaggering onto our shores like wartime GIs full of exotic promise which turned out to be decent enough garage rock, albeit hewn not in the Bowery lofts of their fantasies but in a selection of the world’s most expensive boarding schools.

The Libertines stirred some with their punk-spittled urchin rock, though looking back it was basically Britpop on (much) less glamorous narcotics, wasn’t it? And then there was Interpol. The name had started to gain momentum over the summer, and on 19th August 2002 Manchester Roadhouse was filling up with an interesting crowd. Older people who had been in bands or involved in the music scene, and younger people who would go on to be. I don’t remember why I was there, I’d certainly not heard much if anything they’d done, but by the end of their taut 40 minutes I knew why I’d felt drawn to them.

Reviewing the gig for, Jon Ashley was on the case: “Interpol are important. They make music for freaks. It’s depressing, gloomy, exciting and dark. I love it. I want it. It’s a shame that a lot of hype crazy critics can’t see past the NYC tag and the suits, as this is a very important band attempting to reinvent a very important genre… A very significant moment indeed.” He wasn’t wrong – it felt like… something.

‘Turn On The Bright Lights’ was released the following morning and Piccadilly Records after work that day was like a reunion of the night before. I bought mine on vinyl; it just seemed right.


Yes, plenty of people said they sounded like Joy Division. There was a certain Curtis-like tension in Paul Banks’ voice, I suppose, but much more than that it was another revered Manchester band whose echoes rippled through its eleven tracks. Bleak and beautiful, melancholy and uplifting, the delay-heavy guitar atmospheres and brooding basslines were a journey out of town late on a crisp, cold late November afternoon, the claustrophobic paranoia of grey streets giving way to wide open space; blackened trees against a red and gold sunset, ice wind whipping dead leaves into whirlpools, and up, up on to the moors.

Nobody had ever sounded quite so much like the descendants of The Chameleons. And yet they were from New York City, their English-born frontline of Banks and guitarist Daniel Kessler both having left this island as small children. How did they know what the northern fringes of Manchester and the landscapes beyond sounded like? Where the hell did this even come from? Such an exquisite portfolio of influences, the myriad shades of monochrome which at that point had lain dormant throughout the Three Lions, Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush, Noel Gallagher partying at Number Ten nineties, waiting to be awakened when guitar music got over being so bloody smug and arrogant. Those events in the real world had changed things: 2002 wasn’t as sure of itself as 2000.

Drop the needle and to this day it can turn a room cold. “I’ll surprise… you sometime… I’ll come around… when you’re down…” are the first words we hear, and written down like that they seem like nice words, caring words, but half whispered over Kessler’s chilling minor chords there’s something darker there, something other, hidden in the shadows. The bass kicks in, its edge of menace mirrored by the striking style of its owner Carlos D, an asymmetrically-coiffed German-Colombian seemingly modelled on the sleeve of Kraftwerk’s ‘The Man Machine’ (only without the red) and not averse to wearing a gun holster just for the look of it.

Then a lifetime later – though somewhere just short of an hour in reality – “Leif Erikson” triggers that someone-just-walked-over-your-grave shudder, Banks’ solemn opening line “she says, it helps with the lights out” the sound of all hope fading into a wash of echo and delay. And yet what beautiful decay: “It’s like learning a new language, as we catch up on my mind” – a song which benefits from not being played constantly, as with the right mood and the winter sun low in the afternoon sky it still has the power to amaze with its brilliance, right up until the last guitar note dies away.

Between these bookends, meanwhile, is a proper album, an album like albums used to be, with a start and a middle and an end. A journey that takes in the Johnny Marr-rattle of “Say Hello To The Angels”; the stop-motion twists of “Stella”; that glorious moment two thirds of the way through “PDA” where the guitars just take off for the hills; the crashing climax to not-quite-title-track NYC when the ice thaws briefly with Banks exclaiming “it’s up to me now, to turn on the bright lights!” and you only have to close your eyes to see a bank of massive spotlights bursting into life. Even after a few plays, “Turn On The Bright Lights” felt like it had always been there.


I don’t really need to deconstruct every track, though; I know them like the pictures on my wall and maybe you do too; if you don’t, the originals are all over the internet. That’s the thing writing about a reissue: people – at least plenty of people – already know whether they like it or not. So what are those bells and whistles then?

Well there’s no pip-squeezing here and no cracker novelties. This is a lean, neatly assembled package with a remastered version of the album (if you’re after someone describing in great technical detail the slight differences this has made you’ve probably come to the wrong place); some b-sides and offcuts and radio sessions of the era (Peel no less – he was onto them by 2001) plus a DVD with early live footage and the videos for the album’s singles.

These promos are all shadows and striplights and near monochrome, black clothes and shades, artfully shot on an indie budget: “PDA” is beautifully pretentious, while watching the young Carlos standing feet apart in “Obstacle 1”, bass slung Peter Hook style around his hips it’s hard to recall just how different this all looked for a new band back then.

Interpol: Turn on the Bright Lights – album review

As for the bonus audio tracks, they were never one of those bands who had 30-odd songs knocking about for each album; to be honest there were rarely enough to stuff the plethora of formats and versions that everyone always released around this time (remember when a single came as a seven inch, CD1 and CD2? Is it any wonder people started stealing stuff when they could?) so yeah, there’s some repetition, but all of it worth listening to.

By including three separate demo collections they allow a fascinating insight into the band’s development: on the first, “PDA” tends more towards the garage-indie that was brewing in New York at the time (by which I mean it’s a bit Strokes-ish sounding) while “Get The Girls” could be an old goth band, all scratchy guitars and disembodied howls; these and an early version of “Roland” which is closer to that which ended up on the album were recorded in just two days back in 1998. In the sleevenotes Daniel Kessler recalls getting mugged at knifepoint on the way home after the first session.

The second is interesting because none of its tracks actually made the debut album; “Precipitate” and “Song Seven” preceding it on a single and “A Time To Be So Small” eventually surfacing on “Antics”. Here they’re finding themselves, Banks moving towards the dispassionate baritone which came to be his trademark and Carlos exploring the upper reaches of the fretboard while the guitars have that frosted edge to them.

By the time they were making the third and final demo in 2001 the ice had descended and the Interpol we know had taken shape, with a “Stella” more sweeping and Chameleons-like than the album version and another lost curio “Gavilan Cubed” showing the band in downbeat mode, probably more reminiscent of late Joy Division – early New Order than anything they subsequently released. This is the sound of a band who clearly knew where they were going. Still referencing influences, but moving towards the greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts whole that was truly their own.

What Matador Records have not done, and thank heavens or whatever you normally thank under such circumstances for this, is mess with the sparkling gemstone at the heart of it all that is the original album. There are few forms of artistic vandalism as vulgar as the eighties-nineties thing of reissue labels haphazardly glueing a few extras on the end of a perfectly good album. The extras here are confined to their own disc – it’s not necessarily something you’re going to want to play all the time, but it’s good to have all those tracks in one place. This is basically everything you’d want from a deluxe expanded edition with none of the crap you don’t. And it’s priced accordingly; owners of the 2002 album certainly get enough to justify a new copy (even if their originals aren’t quite as battered and heavily worn as mine) and newcomers get a bargain package of everything you needed to know about early Interpol.

That it’s been near-photocopied so many times over the past decade, its resolution and subtlety blunted by Editors then pretty much everything else bar the basic template sidelined by White Lies, should not be held against it. All that happened is that the run-of-the-mill procession that follows any sudden shift in guitar music stopped drearying about on a semi-acoustic and bought a black shirt and some pedals.

As for Interpol’s own sequels, “Antics” came close musically, certainly, although it could never have the same sort of impact, and from there it was diminishing returns until Carlos finally walked away in 2010. Going to watch them now is, somewhat ironically, not unlike going to watch the remnants of those early eighties bands whose sound they revived: it’s not the same without all of them and you’re mostly there for the nostalgia. They never bettered it, but how could they have done?

Ten years might well, in the grand scheme of things, be a bit on the early side for a reappraisal of anything. Here it doesn’t feel like that, and not just because of the frenzied pace at which the world seems to move these days. It’s quite simply because from day one “Turn On The Bright Lights” had its name down for a place in the canon of the greatest debuts of all time, even the greatest albums full stop; we simply asked it to hang in there for a bit, because any music fan knows you have to live with a new album for at least a few years before you can look at it on an even vaguely level playing field with those you’ve known and loved for far longer.

Welcome home to where you belong, standing proud and tall alongside those greats to which we once compared you, and happy tenth birthday.

All words by Cath Aubergine. You can read more from Cath on LTW here.

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