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The Seahorses: The Britpop disaster that (almost) broke the ‘greatest’ guitarist in a generation

The Seahorses, 1997 (L-R Andy Watts, Chris Helme, John Squire and Stuart Fletcher)
The Seahorses, 1997 (L-R Andy Watts, Chris Helme, John Squire and Stuart Fletcher) - Hulton Archive/ Martyn Goodacre

Lara Croft had a lot to answer for. In January 1999, Britpop quartet The Seahorses gathered at Olympic Studios in London to begin writing their second album. Early in the process, guitarist John Squire arrived with a surprise: a new ditty called “Tomb Raid”. It celebrated, via the medium of late-period, Led Zeppelin-influenced Britpop, the heroine of the popular Tomb Raider video games. 

Squire was a legend of British rock. His previous band, The Stone Roses, were icons in their own right and widely regarded as blazing a trail for Oasis. They had swagger and terrace-anthem tunes – plus a lairy singer and grumpy guitarist who ended up hating one another. Little wonder Liam Gallagher recently sought out Squire as a collaborator – their debut LP as Liam Gallagher John Squire arrives Friday, March 1.

The Seahorses had been successful, too. They’d played Glastonbury, appeared on Top of the Pops and notched up a top five hit with their 1997 debut single, Love Is the Law. Two years later, however, the wheels were coming off. Squire, always aloof and moody, was increasingly estranged from his bandmates – in particular, singer Chris Helme, a former busker from York plucked from obscurity by the ex-Stone Roses Godhead.

Breaking point arrived the day Squire walked into rehearsals determined to immortalise pixellated pin-up Lara Croft. The molten miracle-worker behind I Am the Resurrection had come up with a song that could have been called I Love My Sony Playstation.

“John had written a song called Tomb Raid after the Playstation game,” Seahorses bassist Stuart Fletcher told the website Louder Than War in 2019. “Chris saw himself as a serious songwriter and didn’t want to sing lyrics John had just thrown together about Lara Croft. Chris discussed this with John and John said he should be able to sing a telephone directory with feeling. Chris disagreed.”

Squire pulled the plug on The Seahorses shortly afterwards. However, the real miracle was probably that they had carried on as long as they did – or that they had an impact in the first place. It would be unfair to describe them as the worst ever Britpop band – not when you have competition such as Menswear (all trousers, no mouth), Kula Shaker (great mop-tops, pity about the tunes), or Gay Dad (fantastic name – no songs).

Even at their best, though, they were never that great. The Seahorses embodied post-Oasis British rock’s worst meat and potatoes tendencies. The colossal irony being that Oasis had owed so much of their sound and swagger to The Stone Roses in the first place.

Squire seemed to twig early in the process that The Seahorses risked becoming a blot on his legacy. He never appeared to enjoy his time in the group. Sometimes there was a sense he was actively trying to drown out his bandmates: when they performed at Glastonbury in 1997, Helme struggled to hit his notes on Love Is the Law because Squire had cranked the volume in his guitar too high. The unfortunate Helme couldn’t hear himself think, let alone sing.

“When we played Glastonbury I remember from the second or third guitar riff from John your teeth were shaking and it went right through you,” he told the website Live4Ever in 2011.

“I saw the camera coming towards me and I’m thinking, “where am I, am I coming in at the right time, where’s the f---king note!?” So I would sing and just hope I was in time and in tune with what we were playing. It’s quite unnerving and a little selfish really, being that loud, and it was like that for the next two years and it was during that time I got permanent tinnitus.”

Squire had always been challenging to work with. The Stone Roses imploded when his friendship with singer Ian Brown deteriorated to the point where they could no longer bear to be in the same room. Rumours swirled at the time about drugs driving a wedge between the two – depending on who you asked, Squire had either become a paranoid Jimmy Page wannabe or Brown an egotistical eccentric. Either way and whatever substances fuelled the split, with the demise in 1996 of The Roses, Squire was at a crossroads.

Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, 2001
Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, 2001

He was 36, and a new generation – particularly the Gallagher brothers – were stealing his thunder. So, while the rest of the Roses licked their wounds (bassist Gary “Mani” Mounfield joined Primal Scream shortly after the break-up), Squire started over. He had a record deal with Geffen: all he had to do was assemble a band. He put out the feelers, which is how Helme, a busker and face on the York indie scene, ended up “auditioning” for Squire at a local club.

“I went through the tunes and played my set but I really thought I cooked my goose because after it I would drift up to John and say “well, what do ya think, did you like it?” and he said “yeah, you were good mate”,” he told Live4Ever.

“But I did this a couple of times, walking up to John with “Newky Brown” in hand, more than a little drunk and asking him what he thought. After a few times, he just said, “for f--ks sake I’ve told ya once, you were alright!”

More than alright, it turned out. Helme got the gig, joining the already-hired Fletcher, with drummer Andy Watts completing the line-up. Helme was a talent and had ambitions as a songwriter. Squire, however, was determined to avoid a repeat of the struggle of supremacy that had destroyed the Roses. The Seahorses was his project and his alone.

“He can write the odd tune, but I don’t like them,” Squire said of Helme in an interview with Hot Press. “It might be a problem later on if he wants to record them with the band.”

Initially, all went well. Squire suggested “The Seahorses” as a name while the group drove to their early rehearsal space in the Lake District. With the mercurial guitarist calling the shots, they soon hashed out enough material for a debut LP – recorded in Los Angeles with David Bowie producer Tony Visconti.

“John seemed to have a pretty pre-ordained idea of what he wanted,” said Helme. “He was very particular about things. I imagine that’s how he approached his work in the Roses. I would be into the feel of it more than repeating a structure, but John was quite adamant about a lot of things, like the way I sang, my accent, things like that.”

The guitarist was not unfriendly. Still, he never saw his bandmates as equals. “On a personal level me and John got on alright, it was me and John who would do the press for the band, so I probably spent more time with him than the others, but it’s not like we hung out a lot. We weren’t the chattiest of fellas,” said Helme.

“I got the impression it was best not to ask too many questions about stuff, like The Roses, or other personal stuff. It was nothing to do with me. However, later on when I did have the right to ask questions relating to band business dealings, I think that was when trust issues started to develop due to nothing being out in the open.”

Their album, Do It Yourself, was released in May 1997. It charted at number two, suffering the indignity of being kept off number one by a Gary Barlow solo LP, Open Road. There were a few surprises: the song Love Me and Leave Me, for instance, was co-authored with Squire’s future collaborator Liam Gallagher (his first writing credit). Nevertheless, compared to the wondrous indie pop of The Stone Roses, it  was chugging and predictable – as reviews were quick to point out.

'He was very particular about things': John Squire
'He was very particular about things': John Squire - Hulton Archive

“The essential problem here is that John Squire has lost his sense of ambition,” complained the NME, which found a way to pin responsibility not on Squire but Noel Gallagher. “It’s hard, too, not to blame Oasis for a lot of this. Certainly, the dogged pursuit of mundanity that characterises a lot of Do It Yourself seems inspired by their dumbing-down of rock.” The LA Times agreed, lamenting the “irritatingly beefy guitar solos and psychedelic mushiness”.

But if the critics were cool on The Seahorses, the Britpop generation loved them – for a time at least. Top of the Pops and Glastonbury were followed by support gigs for The Rolling Stones, Oasis and U2.

Mick Jagger, Bono, the Gallaghers...to Squire, it was all a day’s work. However, his bandmates were more than a little starry-eyed – at one point, the guitarist publicly admonished Fletcher after his bassist asked Beck for his autograph.

“Seeing how the other half lived or rather toured, was an eye opener,” Helme told Live4Ever. “Like the gig at Murrayfield supporting U2 on the Pop Mart Tour, getting in the dressing room and finding crates of Guinness and bottles of champagne left for us with a note attached from Bono, though I doubt he actually wrote it himself.

“I remember looking out of the dressing room window and seeing presidential-type security men with shades and earpieces ushering U2 into the stadium and getting told to get back in as “no one gets to watch the band come in”..ha ha. Stu shouting ‘f--k off, what’s it to you where we look.”

It was fun while it lasted but was destined not to last. Helme was desperate to write and frustrated when Squire shut down his attempts to collaborate. The fact that Liam Gallagher found it easier to get a song on a Seahorses record than the band’s lead singer said it all. Determined to spread his wings, Helme booked a stand-alone tour. For his troubles, Seahorse’s management, Helme claims, told him he would be sued if he went solo whilst still fronting the band.

“The band wasn’t working out cos the singer, Chris, wanted to pursue a solo career in tandem,” Squire said. “There was no way that that was going to work for me.”

Squire had other misgivings – the very ones voiced by the critics who had slammed Do It Yourself. In the end, The Seahorses weren’t very good – which is perhaps why Squire had tried to shake things up with a song about Tomb Raider. Realising he was in the same downward cycle that had doomed The Stone Roses, he finally pulled the plug.

“I thought “This sounds s--t, we don’t deserve to be in this place”. The band sounded complacent,” concluded the greatest guitarist of his generation. “I don’t suppose it was anyone’s fault. Maybe it got far too much attention for minimal effort in the early stages because of what I’d done in the past”.

He came across more resigned than devastated. The Seahorses had created a splash. But wedged between the glory of The Stone Roses and the bulldozing swagger of Oasis, they were always fated to run aground. The real shame is that they didn’t even leave behind any decent tunes.