How I wrote ‘Rhythm & Blues Alibi’ by Gomez’s Ben Ottewell
20 years since its release, Southport indie band’s singer-songwriter Ben Ottewell reflects on the genesis of their highest charting single
Founded in 1997, Gomez are an indie rock five-piece band from Southport, consisting of Ben Ottewell, Tom Gray, Paul Blackburn, Olly Peacock, and Ian Ball. Surrounded by instruments, broken toys and a four-track recorder, the lads recorded large parts of their debut Bring It On in a garage, but the record went on to garner praise from rock critics on both sides of the Atlantic and won the Mercury Music Prize for 1998’s Album of the Year.
Its follow-up, Liquid Skin, was released just 518 days later and went straight in at No 2 on the UK Album Chart. The second track released from the LP was Rhythm & Blues Alibi, which remains the band’s highest charting single.
Here, their distinctively husky singer and songwriter Ben Ottewell reflects on how he, Ian and the band created their self-deprecating, R&B-mocking hit…
“The song was written in Sheffield when we were still at university, and Ian [Ball] wrote that verse which he had knocking around. I think he rang me up very late one evening, like at midnight, and played it down the phone. I sort of half-remember the lyrics but the first line ‘You can write a tune with rhythm and blues as your alibi.’
“We’d been writing songs together for about a year then because I’d been in the band for about a year. And I thought it was funny because it was sort of taking the piss out of R&B music as it was at the time, but also taking the piss out of the band and probably me, particularly! It’s essentially over the same kind of chord progression as The Joker by Steve Miller – very classic rock.
“I loved the melody and sense of fun. I think we were criticised for that song, but they sort of missed the point because we were poking fun at ourselves as well as actually how all music leans on American music. So he had half of the lyrics, and literally half an hour later the chorus just came, almost automatically. I rang him back and went, ‘Here’s the chorus.’ I think we went at it a bit more directly, in what we were trying to say. It may not be exactly what [Ian] was thinking.
“Then that tune was laid to rest. What I really liked – what Ian does quite a lot – is the way he always throws in a minor or something slightly diminished into his bridges or pre-choruses. There’s that major-minor shift that means it’s going somewhere, all of a sudden. He could’ve just plodded along with I-IV-V, but then he threw in that… and that’s what made it for me, it sort of opened that door for the chorus to happen – you can go back to the root note.
“So when we were in Sheffield we had the chorus and the verse, but it needed a middle bit, something to kind of anchor it, almost. So it was lying around and we left it there. Then after Bring It On we had this weird thing where we absolutely loved tape – we didn’t engage with ProTools at all, but we’d buy every crappy little toy sampler that we could and just use them.
“So I think we had a Zoom Sampletrak. Ian used to love it, he’d get little guitar lines and loop them, and I think [the arpeggio in the middle section] came out of that. So all of sudden there’s that dynamic shift – probably Tom [Gray] said, ‘Why don’t we throw that in the middle?’ Tom had a great memory for what we had in the ‘archives’.”