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The Road To Hell: How Chris Rea Sped To His Biggest Success
In Depth

The Road To Hell: How Chris Rea Sped To His Biggest Success

Turning traffic woes into a dismantling of social decay, Chris Rea’s ‘The Road To Hell’ album emerged from gridlock as a soft-rock classic.

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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.

Setting the mood for the album perfectly, The Road To Hell was a gloomy and brooding condemnation of a polluted world in which the river “boils with every poison you can think of” and the pursuit of wealth on the “upwardly mobile freeway” only leads to the fiery pits of the infernal abyss. Singing in dour and gruff tones, Rea also unloads rolling blues riffs from his guitar as he rages against technological breakdown while combining commuter belt-woes with a memorable chorus fit for any drive-time playlist.

“You start to see news as pornography”

If you switched on the TV in the late 80s, it wasn’t unusual to find the six o’clock news filled with horrifying coverage of anti-apartheid demonstrators in South Africa committing murderous acts. Necklacing – the act of burning someone alive by lighting a rubber tyre and placing it around a victim’s neck – was a barbaric act for anyone to witness. As a father to young children, Rea came home one day to find his then five-year-old daughter, Josie, in tears.

“They had this thing in South Africa,” Chris Rea said. “There was a riot, and they were doing this horrible thing of throwing lighted tyres over people.” With Josie understandably upset, Rea was angry at how TV journalists were publicising these atrocities, and was inspired to write You Must Be Evil, a protest song about the perils of media sensationalism. “I started to get very grumpy, you know, because you start to see news as pornography,” Rea said. “If we have something horrible, it’s news. If we don’t, it’s not news.”

Essentially equating the way the media peddles violence with the way a pornographer sells sex, You Must Be Evil was a vicious attack on news-hounds who sniff out footage of cold-blooded murder. Conveying Rea’s distaste with squalling slide guitar, the song also featured gospel backing singers who aid Rea as he damns the TV networks for delivering the devil’s work.

Disentangling himself from the newswire, Rea followed the success of the album’s title track by releasing That’s What They Always Say as a single in November 1989, further expounding on how ordinary people wish to escape the grim reality of everyday life but struggle to realise their personal ambitions (“Tomorrow is another day/The money junkie fades away”).

“I could see the whole world just becoming horrible, very quickly”

The other song born of Josie’s harrowing experience was the lush orchestral epic Tell Me There’s A Heaven, which came about after Rea’s father-in-law tried to console Josie at dinner by telling her that the murdered man had gone to heaven. After watching his daughter sleeping in her bed that night, Rea wished he could rest as soundly.

“I could see the whole world just becoming horrible, very quickly,” he later said. “I’d like someone to tell me there’s a heaven as well, you know.” Released in January 1990 as the third single from the album, the string-laden song peaked at No.24 in the UK and still sounds immaculate today, thanks to producer Jon Kelly’s heart-rending work at the controls. As a meditation on an afterlife where the injustices of the world might be resolved, it’s a sombre and thought-provoking album closer.

Though there’s no doubting that The Road To Hell is a journey into Chris Rea’s sobering and somewhat jaded worldview, there are also glimmers of hope in the shape of album tracks such as Looking For A Rainbow. One of the singer’s most blissfully escapist songs, it finds him scanning the horizon and plaintively wishing his troubles away (“I see a rainbow/I say that’s the land of milk and honey”).

The final single to be released from the album was Texas, yet another track that reflects Chris Rea’s desire to escape the dreary surroundings of urban life and embrace a more bucolic existence as a farm owner. Depicting the Lone Star State as a rural hinterland far removed from the London smog, the song reached No.69 in the UK and paid tribute to the songwriter’s love of roots music.

“It was perfect for me. I couldn’t stop that one selling!”

Despite finding Rea’s voice in typically smoky form, and showcasing his bluesy guitar chops at their finest, The Road To Hell was considered to be an unusual way to kick off his major-label career. As a proven singer-songwriter with a magical formula of laidback blues cuts and Mark Knopfler-esque grooves, the decision to create a moody, atmospheric album full of grim social critiques seemed like a bit of a gamble. In fact, it made record executives a little uneasy.

“I had a lot of trouble with Road To Hell,” Rea later told Classic Rock magazine, recalling how its follow-up was already waiting in a lay-by as backup. “If Road To Hell didn’t work we would jump straight away to Auberge and forget about it.” As it transpired, The Road To Hell topped the UK chart and went on to sell 1.2 million copies. “It was perfect for me,” Rea later reflected. “I couldn’t stop that one selling!”

Now widely regarded as his commercial breakthrough, The Road To Hell spent 16 months on the album charts and showed that following his muse could pay off no matter where it led him. Not only did the album prove a formidable showcase for Rea’s love of rootsy slide guitar, it also saw his blue-collar songwriting soar to even greater heights as he harnessed a relatable experience of motorway angst into a broader concept piece that homed in on Rea’s everyman appeal. By finding his way out of gridlock, The Road To Hell saw Chris Rea clock up more mileage than at any other point in his career.

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