After signed to Warner Bros in 1988, there were high expectations for Chris Rea to build upon the success of his ninth album, the platinum-selling Dancing With Strangers. However, when it came to recording his next record, The Road To Hell, the Middlesbrough-born singer-songwriter was feeling somewhat disillusioned by the state of the world and was anxious about the commercial pressures that risked tearing him apart from his wife and children.
Listen to ‘The Road To Hell’ here
“It was a very paranoiac album”
Inspired by a long spell stuck in traffic on the M25, a notoriously congested motorway that circles the whole of London, Chris Rea recorded a set of songs he described as being about “a young guy singing about his children as they sleep”, and which expressed his “fears for the future, fears about the traffic getting bad, paranoia – it was a very paranoiac album”. As a loose concept album full of dark and wistful detours, it wasn’t immediately obvious that The Road To Hell was destined to speed up the charts the way it did – so much so, in fact, that Rea was encouraged to record its follow-up, Auberge, concurrently, in order to quickly offer the music-buying public a warmer and more upbeat palette-cleanser.
As it happens, those initial fears were unfounded. Released on 2 October 1989, The Road To Hell remains one of Chris Rea’s best-selling records to date and still holds up as a cohesive collection of blues-inspired tracks fuelled by his creeping sense of existential dread and his lyrical depictions of world-weary angst. Musically, by keeping his motor running with a distinctly murky take on gospel-blues, Rea proved that his creative impulses could overcome any impasse.
“It started to get a little bit like a sinister movie”
After flying into London’s Heathrow Airport after a trip to Milan, Chris Rea was being driven home on the motorway and gave his wife a quick call on a porta phone. “Wait for me,” he told her. “I’ll only be about 20 minutes.” Unfortunately for the singer, traffic had slowed to a crawl, and he ended up stuck in a standstill for more than three hours. “It started to get a little bit like a sinister movie,” Rea later said, remembering how he and the driver had to ration cigarettes and got told off by the police for trying to take a wee by the roadside.
With helicopters flying noisily overhead, the situation was so unbearable that Rea swore he saw the ghost of his recently deceased mother impart a message to him from the afterlife. When he finally got home, he picked up his guitar and wrote the slow gospel-infused lament that became his new album’s opening track, The Road To Hell Pt.1 (“Son, what are you doing here?/My fear for you has turned me in my grave”). When recording the album later, at Miraval Studios in France, he had this haunting prelude segue into The Road To Hell Pt.2, an ambulating rocker that would later peak at No.10 in the UK and which remains one of the best Chris Rea songs of all time.