A palpable air of excitement crackles between them.
The men are the members of Reef, and they’ve been up all night finishing off their first album, Replenish. Now they want to celebrate.
“We sat on the roof, smoked a doobie, it was just heaven,” says Reef singer Gary Stringer, one of the four men waiting for sunrise on that glorious morning. “We’d just made a record. We’d created something, and we were ready to take it out into the world. It was just an incredible feeling, like, ‘This is the start of something.’”
It was an accurate prediction. When it was released a few months later, Replenish helped turn Stringer and his bandmates in Reef – bassist Jack Bessant, guitarist Kenwyn House and drummer Dominic Greensmith – into one of the most successful and celebrated rock bands of the 1990s and beyond. Songs such as ‘Naked’, ‘Good Feeling’, ‘Choose To Live’ and ‘Mellow’ stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the iconic bands that had inspired them: Led Zeppelin, Free, the Black Crowes, and the greats of soul and R&B.
Twenty-five years on, Replenish sounds as assured and exhilarating as it did when it was originally released. But this is more than just a stellar debut album. Listening back to it now, it’s the sound of being young and hungry and having the whole world in front of you.
“Those were great times for us,” says Jack Bessant. “We were given this amazing opportunity and we just grabbed it.”
The roots of Reef lay in rural Somerset, where skateboard-loving bassist Jack Bessant was raised on a farm in Cheddar and Gary Stringer was brought up down the road in Glastonbury. The pair met after being put in touch by Jack’s uncle, who wrote about music for a local paper. “My uncle heard Gary’s band and said, ‘There’s this amazing singer about your age, you should give him a call,’” says Jack. “I ended up calling Gary and said, ‘I’ve got my band, you’ve got your band, let’s put on a gig together.’”
The two of them bonded and formed their own band. They gigged together, partied together and started to write songs together, some of which would eventually end up on Replenish. “I went off travelling to Morocco to surf,” says Gary. “I took £340 with me and wandered around for three months. I came back with the chords to ‘Good Feeling’ already written. Jack wrote ‘Mellow’ and ‘Choose To Live’ back then as well.”
While Gary was drifting around North Africa, Jack had applied to study at a music college in Isleworth, West London. Within a few months, the bassist had moved to the capital. Gary soon followed him.
It was at college that Jack met another student, drummer Dominic Greensmith, and started jamming. There was a kid from the West Country there too, a hotshot guitarist Gary and Jack knew from back home named Kenwyn House.
“He’d lived near us in Glastonbury for a while, and we knew he was an amazing guitarist.” says Gary. “He shredded like Eddie Van Halen.”
A fast camaraderie developed. The four of them got a house together across from a park in Isleworth. It was exactly what you’d expect a place inhabited by four guys in their late teens to be like: unwashed dishes in the kitchen, mushrooms growing on the bathroom carpet.
But there was something else in the air beyond the fungal spores: an electricity that flowed between the them. When they moved in, Stringer had claimed the biggest bedroom. It now become an unlikely creative hub. “I’d put my double bed up against the wall and we’d rehearse and jam in my room,” he says.
Building on the songs that Gary and Jack had brought up with them from Somerset, music flowed out of them. The tracks that would appear on Replenish were written in that bedroom, including the album’s eventual opener ‘Feed Me’, a song that painted an outsider’s portrait of the heartless, grey-skied capital. Another pivotal song would be future Top 20 single, ‘Naked’.
“We wrote ‘Naked’ really early on,” says Gary. “Kenwyn had this genius riff, and we put melodies and vocals over the top if of it. It took 20 minutes, tops. Twenty minutes for three-and-a-half minutes of gold.”
It would be a pivotal song in Reef’s career, but they had to get signed first. Naming themselves after that same song, the newly-christened Naked began playing shows in the pubs and clubs of West London. “There weren’t that many people there,” says Jack. “But it didn’t matter to us. We knew we were good and people would get it eventually.”
They recorded a demo and sent it to management companies and record labels. “The classic old way of doing it,” says Gary. They got a flood of rejection letters back. “We kept them, for fuel,” he laughs.
The superhuman confidence that flowed through their music was mirrored by their unshakeable self-belief. That determination paid off when their tape landed on the desk of a hotshot A&R man named Lincoln Elias, then working for Sony Record’s newly-launched Sony S2 imprint. “They had Jamiroquai and Terence Trent D’Arby,” says Jack, “but they were looking for some rockers.”
Elias was so impressed that he even ventured to the badlands of Isleworth, braving the dubious hygiene and fungal growths of the band’s shared house. “He could see us living together, see that we were a real gang,” says Stringer.
Elias persuaded his boss, legendary A&R executive Muff Winwood, to come see the band play a show at the newly re-opened Marquee Club on Charing Cross Road in central London. The buzz in the dressing beforehand manifested itself onstage, and the band played the gig that would literally make their career.
The next day, Lincoln Elias called to say he wanted to sign them. Less than six months after they’d moved into that house in Isleworth, they had a record deal.
“We had a huge fucking party,” says Gary. “Nobody could believe we got signed.”
Reef had hit the ground running. And things were about to accelerate even faster.
After they signed Naked, the label did two things. One was to suggest the band change their name to avoid a legal clash with a band in Canada of the same name – which is how Naked became Reef.
The second thing they did was buy them a van and sent them out on the road to gain valuable live experience. Before the deal, Reef had played fewer than 10 gigs. Now anywhere Reef could play, they did: Dundee, Cornwall, Birmingham, Newcastle.
They seized every opportunity that came their way. “When you’re 19 or 20, you’re invincible,” says Gary. “We had an appetite for taking the world and swallowing it whole.”
Word began to spread about this new band with the killer live show and a set full of classics in the making. Audiences began to grow: 15 people, 30 people, 50 people. Pub back rooms began to fill up. People started to take notice.
A batch of songs they had written in the house in Isleworth were recorded with producer Clive Martin at Courtyard Studios near Oxford. Two of these, the ecstatic ‘Good Feeling’ and the euphoric ‘Choose To Live’, were released as a low-key seven-inch single. It caught the attention of Paul Weller, the former singer with punk icons The Jam turned solo superstar. “He’d heard it and really loved ‘Choose To Live’,” says Gary. “He said the lyric really drew him in.”
Weller invited Reef to open for him on his Wild Wood tour, including three nights at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London in November 1994. On show day, they drove from the house they still shared in Isleworth to the venue.
“We’re in this shitty blue Volkswagen that we’ve gone around the country in, heading down the A4,” says Gary. “We’re so excited that we’re winding down the windows at red lights, telling people what we’re doing: ‘We’re going to play with Paul Weller at the Royal Albert Hall.’ He was real a gentleman. That gave us a real boost early on.”
In late 1994, the band began working on their debut album. They decamped with producer Clive Martin to Sawmills – a secluded studio located on the banks of the River Fowey in Cornwall. “It’s in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by dark woods,” says Jack. “Once you’re there, you’re lost, you’re gone.”
In an atmosphere thick with the fragrant smell of smoke, Reef laid down more songs at Sawmills to add to the ones they’d already recorded at the Courtyard earlier in the year. One of these new songs was ‘Mellow’, the laidback number Gary and Jack had brought with them from Somerset all those months ago. To record the drums, Martin set up Dom Greensmith’s kit outdoors in the river estuary, lending them an otherworldly echo and they bounced off the surrounding walls, water and trees. As they prepared to record, a bevy of swans down to land on the river.
“We thought, ‘If they start flapping about, that’s it, it’s gonna screw it all up,’” says Gary. “But they sat there for the whole thing, and when Dom finished his last beat, they flew off. If you listen to the end of the song on headphones, you can hear flap-flap-flap. That’s the swans taking off.”
There was a final session a few weeks later at Moles Studio in Bath, where they wrapped the album in the early hours and went up on the roof to celebrate and watch the dawn break. Some bands struggle to make their first album. For Reef, it had come as easy as riding a wave.
“We had that enthusiasm,” says Gary. “You don’t feel anything’s hard when you’re 19 or 20 and doing something that you always wanted. You’re the wrong guy if you feel scared.”
The music the members of Reef had grown up listening to was embedded deep within Replenish’s DNA: Zeppelin, Free, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Aretha Franklin, James Brown. It was there in the telepathic musical interplay between Jack Bessant, Kenwyn House and Dominic Greensmith: the tightness of songs such as ‘Good Feeling’, ‘Naked’ and the charged ‘Repulsive’ belied their creators young ages. It was there, too, in Gary Stringer’s voice, and his capacity to switch from an emotive whisper to a primal roar in a heartbeat, like the singers he’d grown up listening to.
But this was no dusty museum piece. It bore the greasy thumbprint of grunge, audible in the dirty riffs of ‘Together’ and ‘Loose’s grimy funk. “It was totally our thing,” says Gary. “That kind of style and feeling fitted with us and our lifestyle. We were scruffy herberts who had been in the sea a few times.”
Reef were more than just the sum of their influences. There was a lust for life to Replenish that so many of their cool-kid contemporaries lacked. This was music that came from the heart and soul.
“We weren’t some wishy-washy band come to fuck about,” says Gary. “We weren’t scared of anything or anyone. We just put it all out there.”
Soon, Reef would have a way to put their music out there in ways they could have never imagined just a few months earlier.
In early 1995, electronics giant Sony were looking for a band to front a TV advert for their new MiniDisc recorder, a device they hoped would replace the old cassette Walkman. The ad involved hopeless record execs and cool-dude skaters. The group they wanted to appear in the ad was Reef, and the song they wanted to soundtrack it was ‘Naked’.
The band said they’d do it on one condition. They wanted to re-release ‘Good Feeling’ as the first single proper from the album, reasoning that it would build a solid fanbase and avoid them being pegged as “that band from the advert”. ‘Naked’ would be the follow-up.
The label thought they were crazy. They told Reef they were throwing away a certain Number One hit. The band dug their heels in. “We told them, ‘We don’t care. We still want to be around in 12 months’ time,’” says Gary.
The label backed down. A limo was sent to the house they still shared in Isleworth to deliver them to Heathrow Airport, where they were flown first class to film the advert. “You get offered a trip to New York at that age, put up in a fantastic hotel, paid to go shopping, you’re not going to turn it down,” says Gary. “People criticised us for doing the advert. They’d break your arm off to be able to do something like that now.”
‘Good Feeling’ was released in March 1995 as per the band’s instructions and reached Number 24. ‘Naked’ – the song that actually appeared in the ad – followed in June and hit Number 11. The label was right: they had thrown away a Number One. But Reef’s decision was vindicated. Music fans could smell a cash-grab, and they could sense that wasn’t what these four musicians were about.
Not that the ad itself proved detrimental to Reef’s trajectory. Their profile erupted. Gigs were selling out, venues were getting bigger, people were being turned away at the door.
For those who did make it in, a Reef show was rock’n’roll at its most elemental: four men lost in the music they were making, drinking in the energy the audience gave them and throwing it back tenfold. A typical Reef gig would see Gary in the audience, singing directly in the faces of the crowd members, or Jack being propelled over their heads like a surfer on a sea of humanity. Sometimes the latter backfired.
“I remember crowd surfing at one gig, and getting my jeans caught on a nail on the ceiling and just hanging there by my jeans,” says Jack.
Gary: “We’d play shows and something would happen every night. There’d be a crowd invasion, they’d smash up the drums, they’d try to get into the dressing room.”
By the time Replenish was released in June 1995, Reef had hit full speed. It reached Number 9 in the UK charts, something those kids jamming on Jack parents’ farm in Somerset could have only dreamed about. Songs such as ‘Naked’, ‘Feed Me’ and ‘Comfort’ were a portrait of a band in the ascendency, one that had come a long way in a relatively short time.
The music was captured perfectly by the album’s cover: a vivid, semi-abstract photo in shades of oranges, reds and blues, taken by photographer Paul Cohen. “We met this young dude, he wanted to work with us, we were like, ‘He’s artistic, he’s creative,’” says Jack. “That cover is incredible. It sums up what the band were about.”
The rest of 1995 passed by in a blur. A month after the album was released, Reef supported the Rolling Stones at a tiny – for the Stones – gig at London’s Brixton Academy. They played with everyone from grunge heavyweights Soundgarden to stoner rock pioneers Kyuss. They made a homecoming appearance opening the NME stage at 1995’s Glastonbury festival. “We spent the rest of the day wandering around the site with a flagon of cider from our local cider bar,” says Jack. “It was amazing times.”
Britpop was in full bloom. Bands were either bolshy and belligerent or posturing and painfully hip – everything Reef weren’t and didn’t want to be. “There was loads going on at the time, but this was us doing our thing,” says Gary. “We weren’t interested what the rest of the world was doing. We were just interested in what we were doing.”
The success of Replenish would lay the foundations for everything that followed. There were more hit singles – including the standalone ‘Weird’, included on this vinyl edition of Replenish for the very first time – as well as bigger gigs, high-up-the-bill festival appearances and the kind of priceless experiences life doesn’t often serve up. Reef’s next album, Glow, entered the UK charts at Number One in the UK when it was released two years later.
A quarter of a century later, Reef are still out there, doing what they’ve always done, passion undimmed. And Replenish is where it all started.
“That record changed our lives,” says Gary. “It’s kids from the countryside coming to the city and saying, ‘This is us, this is our energy, this is what we want to share.’ And people connected with it.”