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+ {Glass Onion} + {Fran Healy}

Unashamedly romanticist and heartfelt, talented singer-songwriter Fran Healy and his TRAVIS troops have certainly put the Caledonian cool into post-Britpop soft-rock since their emergence in the 90s. Okay, there’s more than a resemblance in sound to Welsh rivals, STEREOPHONICS, but Glasgow’s TRAVIS have taken the organic roots of the “song” back to basics. Most fans and critics alike will agree that the quartet’s multi-platinum-selling “The Man Who”, was a deserved winner of the Ivor Novella and a Best Album at the corresponding Brit Awards.
Formed in 1990, the Scottish combo actually took shape around brothers, Chris and Geoff Martyn, bassist and keyboardist respectively. Linking up with guitarist Andy Dunlop, drummer Billy Menmuir and singer Catherine Maxwell, their initial moniker was chosen from one of their fave BEATLES songs, Glass Onion, by which time Neil Primrose (from Running Red) had secured his place as permanent sticksman. Surplus to requirements, Catherine was ousted in spring 1991; Fran Healy (a freshman student at the Glasgow School of Art) duly enrolled as frontman and, with an advancement of cash from his mother in 1993 (he’d dropped out of art school), the 5-piece group delivered their first record, `The Glass Onion EP’.
Winning a trip to the New Music Seminar in New York via first place in a Music in Scotland Trust talent contest might’ve given the group impetus had they attended. Still, things looked promising when an American engineer/producer Niko Bolas, was impressed by a Radio Scotland session spot, resulting in some crucial studio time; the death of Healy’s grandfather had re-kick-started his newfound songwriting abilities. With the band still going nowhere fast, changes had to be made and, by March 1996, the Martyn brothers had made way for Fran’s former Glasgow School of Art best-buddy bassist, Dougie Payne (Andy had also been a student) – TRAVIS were now in proper circulation and, under the watchful eye of Sony Music Publishers, a deal was set up by Charlie Pinder.
Following a self-financed debut single, `All I Want To Do Is Rock’, the all-new TRAVIS were taken under the wing of (ex-Go! Discs man) Andy McDonald’s Independiente Records (backed by Sony), in early in ‘97. Subsequently relocating to London, the group released their controversial follow-up single, `U16 Girls’, apparently a tongue-in-cheek warning to the charms of underage females. A re-vamp of their hard-to-find debut platter followed the record into the Top 40, and suddenly TRAVIS were one of the hippest new names on the block.
Though Healy was a charismatic frontman, the Top 10 debut album, GOOD FEELING (1997) {*7}, illustrated at the time the one-dimensional nature of much of their material. Nevertheless, the Steve Lillywhite-produced record did spawn two further Top 40 hits in `Tied To The 90s’ and `Happy’, indicating that there was at least some potential for the future.
After a relatively quiet 1998, although `More Than Us’ became their biggest hit to date at No.16, TRAVIS were back the following March. Taking a softer, laid-back-in-the-70s approach (BREAD came to mind), the Scots achieved a deserved second Top 20 spot with the beautiful ballad, `Writing To Reach You’. Further successes came in the shape of `Driftwood’, `Why Does It Always Rain On Me?’ and `Turn’, all songwriting masterpieces from the critically acclaimed chart-scaling sophomore set, THE MAN WHO (1999) {*8}.
TRAVIS were fast becoming the United Kingdom’s No.1 band and, by the start of the year 2000, they were given that dubious accolade by winning the now prestigious Brit award. OASIS (who had been tops until that moment!) invited nice guy Healy and Co to support them on a US tour, the American audiences eventually being won over by their sheer honest enthusiasm and talent. While many critics predictably put the boot in, you could bet your bottom dollar they had a secret copy of another British chart-topper, THE INVISIBLE BAND (2001) {*7}, hidden away for furtive listening pleasure. TRAVIS simply wrote great songs, occasionally something more but rarely anything less. On first listen, the deceptively simple single, `Sing’, may have sounded a tad trite, but its subtle, banjo-inflected power deepened with every spin, enveloping one in a dizzying aura of elemental truth. Similarly, the lyrics of `Side’, were the butt of cheap jibes, yet their sentiment leaked into the consciousness like a zen koan. The band’s lack of image and endearing avoidance of any flirtations with the vagaries of musical fashion merely accentuated the strength of their material. While there was nothing on the album that matched the searing melancholy of say, `Writing To…’, chances were one was still playing the album the next year, and the next, and the next…
However, disaster struck the band on the 9th July 2002, when Primrose accidently hit his upper torso on the bottom of a swimming pool in France. He underwent extensive surgery to his neck, culminating in the cancellation of the group’s entire promotional European tour (as well as V2002). All was said to be well, with Primrose making a slow but steady recovery as the band entered the studio to record their fourth album, the darker and more agitated 12 MEMORIES (2003) {*6}.
Probably hoping to match COLDPLAY’s emotional, piano-driven songwriting, TRAVIS seemed to be slowly running out of steam, with Healy’s ballad-y content becoming more and more moot. However, for fans of TRAVIS there was much to admire here: the attack on American ignorance entitled `The Beautiful Occupation’ and the spunky hit `Re-Offender’ were two that stood out. An impressive best-of “Singles” set was just what it said on the tin, all of their hits plus a new one, `Walking In The Sun’.
Over the years, TRAVIS were responsible for the odd B-side cover, including `Give Me Some Truth’ (JOHN LENNON), `Be My Baby’ (PHIL SPECTOR), `The Urge For Going’ (JONI MITCHELL), `Baby One More Time’ (BRITNEY SPEARS), `The Weight’ (The BAND), `Killer Queen’ (QUEEN), `All The Young Dudes’ (DAVID BOWIE), `You’re A Big Girl Now’ (BOB DYLAN), `Here Comes The Sun’ (The BEATLES), `Is That Love?’ + `Pulling Mussels (From A Shell)’ + `Up The Junction’ (SQUEEZE) and `Lola’ (The KINKS).
Four years in the making, but without much incline to the fast-moving pace of new music and all its fashion curveballs, 2007’s THE BOY WITH NO NAME (2007) {*6}, guaranteed mixed reviews. Although fresh-faced stars KT TUNSTALL and JULIA STONE made their mark on `Under The Moonlight’ and `Battleships’ respectively, it seemed the simplistic nature of Fran’s songs were working against them. Still, there were two unforgettable Top 30 tunesters through `Closer’ and `Selfish Jean’.
Unimpressed by their previous shortcomings and with music going through its own overall and recession combined, Independiente bailed. Fran and his fortuitous fraternity found a friend in Fontana Records, who listed their sixth set with the revived Red Telephone Box imprint. Although sales were on the slow and low side (peaking at No.20 only), ODE TO J. SMITH (2008) {*7}, was described as a welcome return to lad-rock and back to their Britpop roots. Possibly trying to reconnect with other fanbases rather than their own, tracks such as `Chinese Rocks’, `J. Smith’ and `Song To Self’ (all single flops), were stuck in a respective OASIS, RADIOHEAD and COLDPLAY time-warp, but there was no denying that these were also great tunes in the now floating TRAVIS canon.
A sticky 5-year hiatus saw each member taking time out with their families. HEALY, though, still maintained a certain degree of profile via a solo album effort, WRECKORDER (2010) {*6}. In order to separate him from band works, Fran took the role of folkie soft-rocker, crooning and swooning with numbers such as `Fly In The Ointment’, `Shadow Boxing’ and, with Canadian singer NEKO CASE, `Sing Me To Sleep’; Sir PAUL McCARTNEY rolled up for bass-playing duties on the sombre `As It Comes’. By all accounts this set was just basically TRAVIS without its main backing musicians.
TRAVIS, the band, were back in the Top 3 with album number seven, WHERE YOU STAND (2013) {*7}. This time around (although he’d contributed several times on previous tunes), Payne was behind a few tracks, while Dunlop was at Healy’s side on others. `Mother’ opened the set in fine fettle, the band’s amiable and dreamy style echoing – by no coincidence STEREOPHONICS – on the likes of `Moving’, `Another Guy’ and `On My Wall’. Taking a diversion from the norm, `New Shoes’ and the beautiful `Boxes’ were tracks in the ballad-y, classicist tradition, making the TRAVIS comeback worthy of a few shouts from the rooftops.
Sticking with the Red Telephone Box imprint for a third time on eighth studio set, EVERYTHING AT ONCE (2016) {*7}, the trusty TRAVIS were plucking joy and sunshine out of a rainy day, whilst nailing another Top 5 entry. Whether knocked out as proper singles or not, bassist Payne’s hooky title track, plus Healy’s `Magnificent Time’ (scribed with KEANE’s Tim Rice-Oxley), `3 Miles High’ (penned with young Norwegian songstress AURORA) and `Idlewild’ (featuring rootsy singer JOSEPHINE ONIYAMA) et al, tied in and supplemented some top-notch promo videos that gave the set a sort-of filmic concept appeal.
© MC Strong 2000-2006/GRD / rev-up MCS Aug2013-May2016

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