Cultural Toolbox: David Gray's White Ladder to success

Shane Coleman and John Fardy discuss Gray’s seminal 1998 album

Cultural Toolbox: David Gray's White Ladder to success


The subject of this week’s Cultural Toolbox was David Gray’s classic 1998 album White Ladder.

The album was Gray’s fourth, and his first commercial success. Though his early career was plagued by frustration, the album would go on to sell 7,000,000 copies.

As often happens on the Cultural Toolbox, Shane and John have slightly different views on the subject. John was filled with praise for White Ladder, saying that each of its nine (or 10 on some editions) songs are evocative and unique.

Whereas Shane was surprised at the selection after John had vetoed the idea of discussing Damien Rice’s O, thinking both are quite similar. While John holds that Gray’s Dylan-esque voice sets him apart, Shane hears affectation rather than honesty.

Of course Gray is a common target in the debate over where the line lies between ‘easy-listening’ and ‘boring,’ but you can listen back to their discussion below and make your mind up for yourself:

Early Struggles

Gray’s first two albums A Century Ends (1993) and Flesh (1994) - which demonstrate a simpler acoustic folk - failed commercially, with neither breaking the UK top 100, and he was dropped from Virgin’s Hut Records. His third effort, the plaintively-titled Sell, Sell, Sell on EMI fared little better, but showed a marked progression from his earlier work, into what would eventually become his signature mix of acoustic folk and electronic samples.

Though promoted through tours with artists like the Dave Matthew’s Band and Radiohead, his music once again failed to find mainstream appeal, leading to a split with EMI, and no label to back another release.

Instead – without the funds for a studio recording - he retreated to his London apartment with an acoustic guitar and some samplers, from where he would record and release White Ladder through his own IHT Records. Two years later in 2000, friend Dave Matthew’s re-released the album on his own ATO Records and Gray immediately felt the success which had so far eluded him.

White Ladder

For Gray, the wait was long but the rewards were sweet. White Ladder received critical acclaim, and its lead single ‘Babylon’ shot to #5 on the UK charts. The album established him as a household name and would spend a total of 151 weeks on the chart.

Both ‘Babylon’ and ‘This year’s love’ have remained his defining songs, both mixing soft electronic samples with folk-y vocals, and each seeped in personal frustrations and fractured relationships.

A number of songs, including ‘This year’s love’ appeared on the soundtrack of a film of the same name. The film has a similar tone to the album, and focuses on the loves and longings of a group of 30-somethings in Camden town.

Though the film was not a major success, it showcased how well Gray’s music could add melancholic weight to emotional scenes. ‘This year’s loving’ would go on to feature in The Girl Next Door, Crazy/Beautiful, and Wimbledon, as well as the television series Dawson's Creek.

Irish support

One peculiarity of Gray’s career – which is responsible for much of his success – is his popularity in Ireland. Every one of his 10 albums has charted equal or higher in Ireland than in the UK. His success here has largely been attributed to alternative RTÉ music show No Disco, which heavily promoted his music.

Gray himself explained its importance in a statement of support for the programme, which was cancelled in 2003 after a decade on air:

“It let some sort of oxygen into my music making at a time when I was finding it hard to get an audience or the time of day anywhere.

“There was a real scene. (They) were indicative of the kind of person that was around – young people thinking in a completely different, European way. Hence the whole explosion of culture that Ireland has seen in the ten years since I’ve been going there regularly.”

Upon its re-release in 2000, White Ladder quickly sold 100,000 copies in Ireland, maintaining its top position for six weeks.  By 2002 it had sold 350,000 copies. In fact, to this day, White Ladder is Ireland’s best-selling album.