Released on 11 March 2011, What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? was the start of a new era of indie music across the UK. Its predecessors, such as Arctic Monkeys’ Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, as well as Courteeners’ St Jude, had been encapsulated by hyper-regional narrative-bound tales of juvenile antics. The Vaccines aimed to speak to a wider sense of youth that could be appreciated by a more global audience.
From the immediate twang of Strokes-esque guitars to frontman Justin Young’s unique vocal style, they transformed otherwise industry-standard chords into something that stuck with audiences. With references to Scott Fitzgerald and Danish model Amanda Nørgaard, the album equally toyed with playful lyricism. They had taken simple criteria for a punchy indie song and manufactured it into a collection of tracks with high replayability.
The album doesn’t waste any time in tapping into the unlimited vein of adolescent energy with ‘Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra)’. Clocking in at just over one minute, it sets the mood of the album succinctly, with a guitar at the forefront of infectious hooks and chantable melodies. This is followed by ‘If You Wanna’, a track that carries the aura of a band ready to kickstart a rowdy bunch of teens into unleashing their dichotomous thrill and angst against the world.
This energy, however, has also limited the scope of the album. While a few of its slower tracks offer a more sombre experience for listeners—such as ‘Post Breakup Sex’—this is undoubtedly a summertime record. It sparks images of sunburnt summertime festivals, friends, and field parties in the early hours of the morning.
What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? equally cemented many down a path that would define their adolescence as indie-supremacists. The album’s allure to the unbridled joy and energy of the genre wholeheartedly converted us to its all-encompassing lifestyle. If it wasn’t indie, we weren’t interested. I’ve come to my senses since then, realising that incessantly attempting to slam dunk on pop music is both unoriginal and unfounded. But the album became near synonymous with indie culture. Through platforms like Tumblr, the band’s namesake was intertwined with the indie aesthetic; grainy 35mm photos of early 2010s tour posters and Doc Martens. If you wanted the indie lifestyle, their music came as part of the package.
And yet, beyond the first album, the band stalled. Their sophomore release, Come Of Age, lacked the same punch and precision that their debut possessed. Aside from a few tracks such as ‘Teenage Icon’, the album worked against them. While their later work would prove to be tonally distinct from their first album, Come Of Age created an image of a band who had already peaked, attempting an easy cash-in on their tried and tested formula. Many fans who believed that the prophetic sophomore slump was fulfilling itself soon stopped paying attention to the band.
Despite this, The Vaccines were always one of the non-negotiable acts to see across the numerous festivals and gigs—at least on paper. Come showtime, the story was always the same. The band would triumphantly begin their set with the same distilled dynamism that first enticed their audience in 2011, shortly followed by a song from their later albums which would reduce the crowd to a passing nod at the best of times.
In many ways, What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? remains a double-edged sword for the band. In an interview with DIY Magazine in 2015, Young spoke about how they had “always kinda been held back, essentially, by our own ethos: this mantra of writing short, sharp, fast, simple pop songs.” By creating such a specific sound, the band had pigeonholed themselves into a specific vision, albeit perhaps unintentionally. Indie had made them famous, regardless of their self-identification as a pop-artist.
Across the three full albums since What Did You Expect From The Vaccines?, the band have played with heavier rock sounds in English Graffiti, as well as including minor electronic elements across a few tracks. These albums—while well received by most critics—have been met with lukewarm commercial performance, with each album falling sharply out of official charts of public listening just a week after their releases. Yet, the band have continued to tour, selling out venues and retaining their household name status.
This is perhaps the greatest indicator of the success of their debut album. The stature and reputation the band generated from their album alone has carried the band for 10 years already, despite the lack of mainstream circulation of their contemporaneous work. For many, the nostalgic baggage that the album conjures is enough to keep them returning to the band’s debut. Even for those whose tastes have since departed away from indie, their work will forever provide a perfect timestamped snapshot into a particular culture at a particular time, and all of the memories associated alongside. What Did You Expect From The Vaccines? will always welcome fans if they wanna come back, regardless of wherever the band’s sound has gone since.
Words by Joshua Ong
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