Track 24: Junk Shop Clothes, The Auteurs

New Wave, 1993

Luke Haines doesn’t like Britpop; that much is widely known. His repulsion wasn’t enough for him not to include it in the subtitle of his book, but it doesn’t require many pages to be turned before the vitriol flows. I wonder how he feels* about his book indirectly led to (yet) another book on the subject being written: mine.

Two years ago, I needed a fortieth birthday present for a music-loving friend. I wanted something Britpoppy, given we were both big fans back then, and there were plenty to choose from. But they were all from the perspective of those who found fame at the time – Louise Wener, Alex James and of course Luke Haines (the book I plumped for in the end) – or the journalists who described it all with increasing bewilderment and disdain.

That’s all fine and proper; they undoubtedly have many stories to tell. But without the fans, music would be little more than 3-6 people playing instruments in a large room. By themselves. Surely our side of the story can be heard occasionally?**

Fast forward a few weeks. I am, for reasons too convoluted to explain here (alright, work) a short way into an exceptionally long car journey across rural Guinea. My_MG_3141 translator fell asleep 10 minutes in, and shows little sign of waking up again today. The driver’s English is on a par with my French. The scenery’s stunning, but there’s only so often I can point at it and say ‘Vert, très beau’.

He only has one tape for the entire journey, but it’s good. Through our few shared words, he explains this was a band he liked as a teenager and he used to watch them play in Conakry. I ponder trying to tell him about the music of my own adolescence, but ‘Connaissez-vous l’Oasis ou le Blur?’ fails to elicit so much as a nod. Plus, we’ve been together for six days, and there’s been no mention of Longpigs, no casual whistling of Shed Seven album tracks. I conclude it’ll be a bit of a stretch to try and convey the full wonder and intricacies of Britpop to him, so settle back to enjoy a bit of Guinpop instead. But if I could explain it, what would I say?

Fourteen wordless hours later, as we crawl through the capital’s traffic-choked suburbs, I have the outline of a novel sketched out. Plus most of the jokes, both musical and rude, that I plan to scatter liberally within. While tempted to taste Conakry’s famous nightlife, a week of rural water means my stomach forbids me to stray more than single-digit metres from a toilet. I start typing that evening.

Two years later, it’s published. Reviews so far have been very positive. The proof of its qualities will be when I get one from someone who I don’t know/am not related to, but hopefully they’ll enjoy it, or at least be kind. If not … well, that’s fine too. I had a lot of fun writing it, not least as it pushed me to dig out some long-forgotten CDs from twenty years ago and listen to them repeatedly. It’s all about the music, after all.

Apologies if you were hoping to read something about the Auteurs, rather than a shameless and lengthy plug for my book. So, here goes. If you missed the Auteurs at the time – which according to their cranky frontman, far too many of us did – then delve in. The first two albums, New Wave and Now I’m A Cowboy have most of the best-known tracks – ‘Show Girl’, ‘Lenny Valentino’, ‘New French Girlfriend’ – but it’s the third, After Murder Park where things get really interesting, with singalong crowd-pleasers such as ‘Light Aircraft On Fire’ and the bubbly floor-filler ‘Unsolved Child Murder’, very much their ‘Ob-la-di Ob-la-da’ moment.

His book is even more worthy of your time, though. ‘Bad Vibes’ bursts the Britpop bubble with a sharpened halberd, bringing a hefty number of his unworthy peers down a peg or twenty. I don’t agree with all of what he says – I loved it as a fan – but the important thing is, he was brave/angry enough to say it at the time, regularly venting spleen, pancreas and duodenum in interviews with the music press. There have been several Britpop hatchet jobs in recent times (like this one and this one) but they don’t run the risk of defying the zeitgeist. By contrast, Mr Haines didn’t so much swim against the tide as stand on the beach pissing into it.

And, in his determination to bolt down Britpop’s coffin for good, he caused another book on the subject to be written.

Never poke a sleeping dragon, Luke.

Top three Auteurs songs:

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* It’s not impossible that he is totally, utterly indifferent to the fact.

** This was before Caitlin Moran had written hers, or I’d come across ‘She’s Electric’ which is an(other) excellent Britpop-themed novel. More serious than mine, but there’s plenty of room for all sorts.

Track 23: Monday Morning 5.19, Rialto

Rialto, 1998

Rialto could never be described as a mainstream act, with just three Top 40 hits (hey, it’s three more than I’ve managed). But they were still a great Nineties band. For this song alone, they deserve their place on any list of great Nineties bands. It’s got it all: a great tune, a story to tell – that all-too familiar anxiety that the girl you love is off with Someone Else, and having more fun than with you – and a steady, determined rhythm. That rhythm is possibly because they had two drummers, for reasons I still haven’t worked out, 20 years on.

Here’s the problem, though. Two drummers is pretty much all I know about Rialto (that Kinky Machine 1995and some of them used to be in Kinky Machine), and even a wordsmith as accomplished as myself would struggle to put that through the mangle enough times to produce an acceptable-length blog post. This week’s musings, then, are about the bands who scuttled about the edges of the Britpop hype.

One-hit wonders would be unfair, and in many cases inaccurate. Describing them as small, or in any way inferior, is likely to invoke the ire of their fans or those who like to pick fights online. So let’s describe them as Britpop’s support cast, the bands who may not have reached the absolute pinnacle, but still contributed significantly to making that decade what it was: the Jellicle Cats to Blur’s Bustopher Jones.

Here are six of the best – OK, five of the best and one of the worst – acts that nobly padded out the  Shine albums and provided your (very) early afternoon entertainment at the Reading festival. Let’s raise a Two Dogs to them all.

If You Really Wanna Know, Ether

Welsh. The singer, a doppelganger for Dawson of Dawson’s Creek fame, had an oddly nasal voice. I don’t remember them having a second single, but this one’s a corker. My friend Gordon swears they were good, but he’s half Welsh and has a tendency to favour all things from that side of the Offa’s Dyke. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on this one, though.

Breathe (A Little Deeper), Blameless

I bought this as a single from Record Collector, and played it on repeat for quite a long time. I was convinced they were going to be huge, and I would have the early single to prove that I’d known of their genius all along. I have never met anyone else who remembers them. Bah. Still, it’s a great song. They should have been huge, dammit. How come Menswe@r were huge and Blameless weren’t? Fame can be a cruel, twisted bastard at times.

Lava, Silver Sun

I saw Silver Sun at the Leadmill. I remember this song in particular, because it is exceptionally catchy, even though it appears to be about worm pies and painting little pigs. Not sure what was going on there. Their brief little spurt of fame didn’t extend much further, although it seems they’re still a going concern. And they made enough of an impression to make it into my novel, and a pivotal scene no less. I’m sure they’re absolutely thrilled/delighted/honoured/humbled etc etc.

Tranquilizer, Geneva

I suspect Geneva might be ill-placed on this list, and were much bigger than I realised. If so, I apologise. This is a truly beautiful song, a compelling vocal performance set against a wonderful opening riff. ‘Into The Blue’ is equally good. How come Menswe@r were huge and Geneva weren’t? Life can be cruel etc etc.

The Flamingoes, Scenester

Confession time: I didn’t know about The Flamingoes until recently. Certainly not in the Nineties. Shame, as they were great. Yet another to file under the ‘How did Menswe@r…’ file. I learnt about them after learning about singer James Cook’s excellent book, Memory Songs, which is more than worth buying. Once you’ve bought my book, obviously.

Bennet, Mum’s Gone To Iceland

This song is diabolical. I’m only including it because my little sister knew someone in the band and she’ll be annoyed if I don’t include them. It’s a dull tune with crap lyrics, and it’s not even very on message. Mum’s Gone To Iceland? Why can’t Dad go to Iceland? Or a non-gender-defined parental guardian? They wouldn’t get away with this sort of caper now. Honestly, the Nineties were so behind the times.

But seriously, this one is shit. Don’t click on the link.

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Track 22: Headshrinker, Oasis

The Masterplan, 1998

And so, 22 tracks in, we get to Oasis. The best band of the Nineties? Opinion is divided (I’m in the ‘no’ camp). But they were undoubtedly the biggest. Defeat in the Battle of Britpop was nothing more than a minor setback, a blip on their march to total domination. Blur laid a glove, certainly, but there was only ever going to be one winner in the war.

As with anyone or anything that is popular, successful, acclaimed and revered, there are plenty on hand to point out how rubbish they were, their success undeserved. Oasis have variously been described as overhyped, overblown and overproduced; derivate, unoriginal, a pound-shop Beatles tribute act; arrogant, boorish, yobbish, thuggish, and responsible for the seedier aspects of lad culture that swept over the decade. They were, to some extent, all of those things. But that shouldn’t obscure the fact that, at their very best, they were utterly fabulous.

Their later work contains occasional moments of splendour – ‘Fuckin’ In The Bushes’ and Oasis 1995Songbird’ leap buoyantly to mind – but the band’s legacy as music legends was cemented by the three great albums they released during Britpop’s heyday.

Three? Three great albums?

Surely Be Here Now has been officially classified as shite?

It has (although I quite like it), but that is not the album of which I write; no, it’s their fourth album that stands on the shoulders of giants.

Not that one either. That really was crap, the first track aside.

No, I mean The Masterplan: the finest platter of offcuts and offal ever laid down on tape/CD/vinyl.

This collection of B-sides, taken from their early singles, ranks among the upper tier of great Britpop albums. While not conceived, written or recorded as a single piece of work, it contains moments of tender beauty, raucous fury and lyrical splendour. ‘Half The World Away’ is one of Noel’s most touching compositions; the track from which the compilation takes its name achieves the balance of bombast and melody that Be Here Now tried for but missed; and ‘Acquiesce’ is up there with their very best tunes: it stands confidently ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’, ‘Whatever’ and ‘Champagne Supernova’.

Incredibly, another of their greatest songs, ‘Round Are Way’, doesn’t even make the cut for this album of second chances. An astonishing omission: it’s a swinging, swashing, Madness-meets-Slade tribute to the joys of childhood, and with some excellent brass thrown into the mix as well. Anyone who can listen to it and say Oasis had nothing to offer needs to be escorted from the premises. Preferably by Liam after he’s had a few.

Among such company, ‘Headshrinker’ falls a little short. It’s a thrashy three minutes that sounds very B-side, the sort of thing Noel could have churned out while waiting for the kettle to boil. It’s alright, but not very memorable. I only picked as a chapter title because it fitted the narrative of the book. There are couple of other bum notes in there, too. I’ve never liked ‘I Am The Walrus’, their version or the Beatles. It’s a crap song. For such Beatles obsessives, the Gallaghers should have delved a little deeper; ‘Paperback Writer’ or ‘Birthday’ would both have suited their considerable talents well.  But these are rare blips on an otherwise seamless collection.

Could/should they have held these songs back for a fully formed album? Do they regret hiding them away on singles? Not according to Noel, who appreciated their innate value as songs, rather than sales devices.

Oasis 1996He has a point: an Oasis single was a big thing back then, partly because of the unknown extras you might get. Imagine/remember the joy of buying ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ and discovering you’d been gifted ‘Step Out’, ‘Underneath The Sky’ and a cover of ‘Cum On Feel The Noize’ as part of the package. Those overflowing early singles were a major factor behind Oasis becoming the undisputed kings of Britpop.

And they were the kings, despite what the naysayers claim. Even now, it seems; I recently met someone who opined that Oasis were irrelevant. This argument I cannot fathom: it’s like saying breakfast is irrelevant. You can love them, hate them or not mind them either way, but they are relevant for a great many reasons – one of which is their commitment to the importance of the great B-side, of the the single as a mini collection, rather than just song-plus-filler.

As Noel himself has said, “Oasis were a band built on the aura of the b-side”. For that reason alone, everyone should salute them.

Top three Oasis B-sides (with ‘Rockin’ Chair’ and ‘Half The World Away’ just missing the cut):

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Track 21: Sulk, Radiohead

The Bends, 1995

There are two sides, pretty fiercely entrenched, sides to the debate around music streaming. For the fans, it makes music less expensive and more accessible; it is hugely convenient, meeting the modern expectation of having everything available absolutely right now. It can also help small or new acts to build a following online, when previously that usually required a label or wealth (or both).

Yet of course musicians deserve to be rewarded for their talents, and the payments they get are undoubtedly very low (although there are ideas out there to change that). And it has changed how we listen to music: it’s too easy these days to skip through songs, music as yet another online distraction, rather than something deserving of attention.

Yet there is something else we have lost in the rush for instant gratification: the album as an event. As I understand it, these days the done thing is to ‘drop’ an album, without any preceding hype, to catch the world off guard and get your name trending on Twitter and Instagram.

But that doesn’t allow any time for the tension to build up, the whispers to start, friends to boast about hearing new tracks late on Radio 1, before you. It doesn’t allow time for any of that most delicious of sensations: expectation.

Radiohead 1995Radiohead’s OK Computer was such as an event. Released in 1997, it was the album of my first year at university (most students had grown out of Oasis by then). No one knew quite what to expect, which only added to the sense of anticipation. All we’d been given as a taster was the curious, takes-a-few-listens weirdness of ‘Paranoid Android’, the Kraftwerk-does-Bohemian-Rhapsody first single.

The chatter in the campus bars and halls intensified as the June launch date approached. I was quite literally desperate to hear it. When the day arrived, I trotted down to Record Collector in Broomhill to get my copy, then jogged back to halls for that long-awaited first listen. Kettle on, pillows plumped, lie back. And listen.

What the fuck is this?

The scratched bassline intro to ‘Airbag’ makes for an unconventional start, compounded by someone kicking over a drumkit 15 seconds in. It’s OK, albeit a slightly caustic start, considering the last we heard from them was the haunting ‘Street Spirit’. I’m prepared for the madness of ‘Paranoid Android’, and tracks three to six sound more recognisably Radiohead, even if they do slowly drag me down into that cave of melancholy usually only reached via the worst of hangovers.

As I begin to wonder what the point of life is anymore and whether I should just hand myself in to these Karma Police, I am kicked back into reality by the frankly bizarre interjection of ‘Fitter Happier’. What is this? Who is singing/speaking/droning it? A Stormtrooper? Stephen Hawking? Has someone fucked up at the CD pressing factory?

Before I’ve had time to work it all out, though, I am smacked in the side of the head by ‘Electioneering’. The strangled-ghost vocals on ‘Climbing Up The Walls’ do little to soothe my now-fragile, confused mental state, and it is only the glockenspieled melody of ‘No Surprises’ that returns my pulse to somewhere near normal, as the album winds itself down with its closing balm of a three-piece suite.

I lie back, feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, elated and confused. Then play it again.

Let’s face it, you don’t get all that when Ed Sheeran uploads his latest effort to Spotify.

Time heals, and I love the album now. Adore it. And partly because it works as a whole, each individual track an integral part. ‘Electioneering’ remains an assault on the ears, but the album wouldn’t work without it: ‘Lucky’ and ‘The Tourist’ would have no raw wounds to bind. It is rightfully acclaimed by each and every one, not just as one of the best albums of the Nineties, but of all time.

And yet … and yet ….

I still prefer The Bends. It’s more melodic, more upbeat (although OK Computer sets a phenomenally low bar in this respect) and, ultimately, it’s an easier listen. ‘Street Spirit’ is glorious. ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ and ‘(Nice Dream)’ are both compellingly beautiful. And ‘Sulk’ is a superb, soaring anthem, a song that would be most band’s crowning achievement, yet sneaks in as track 11 for Radiohead.

In fact, not only do I prefer The Bends, I think it’s a better album than OK Computer.

I would never have dared suggest such heresy in the student pubs of 1990s Sheffield, though.

Top three Radiohead tracks (and it was exceptionally hard to narrow it down to three):

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Gig review: The Vaccines

Festsaal, Berlin, 26 October

It has taken me nearly a decade to see the Vaccines for a second time. An unwelcomely long wait; that first time, in a cramped, clammy, crowded underground bar on Hamburg’s ‘mile of sin’, they blew me away with their energy, vim and talent. So much so that nothing – not my cold, my age, or my five-week-old baby – were going to stop me from getting to this gig.

IMG_2263After the support trooped off – keep a beady eye out for the excellent whenyoung, especially the brilliantly coiffured drummer – on they came. The first thing that strikes is that they have, not unreasonably, got older. The straplings of the Reeperbahn have filled out, swaggered up, even grown in number.

The second, though, is the curious stage dynamic. While three of them dive straight into full-on rock bluster, bassist Árni Árnason and keyboardist Timothy Lanham more closely resemble people waiting patiently for a library to open, all planted feet and middle-distance stairs. Oddly, the imbalance works; their reticence leaves room for their more energetic bandmates to do their stuff. And while the supremely gifted lead guitarist Freddie Cowan, dressed in tight-white T-shirt and jeans, would splice seamlessly into any rock band from any era, it’s inevitably singer Justin Hayward-Young who draws the eye.IMG_2265

A little too much on occasion. There’s an overdose of knowing points into the crowd, and on occasion his stage posturing veers dangerously close to school musical (over)acting – although credit is due to anyone who tries to swallow a whole mic live on stage. And these are minor niggles; overall, he’s the perfect frontman, with the voice to match the strutting.

And songs this good demand a little strut. The Vaccines don’t hang about, racing hyperactively through the set, their surfer-tinged and Joe Meek-dappled early hits expertly interspersed with tracks from the new album, with ‘Your Love Is My Favourite Band‘ standing out. Old and new dovetail neatly, and they’ve blended in nice touches of country rock, even a little Eighties disco – foretold by their stage entrance, all glitterballs and ‘Dancing Queen’ (reclaiming that song for a merciful nation from May’s awkward clutches).

Yet it is the anthemic old favourites that reveal the band at their best. ‘Wetsuit’, ‘Post Break-up Sex’ and ‘If You Wanna’ sound especially glorious, meshing brilliant guitar/drums work with memorable lyrics about adolescent insecurities and sexual frustrations that – allow me to reach for my Britpop crowbar briefly – are up there with the best of Pulp. So soaring are they that even the bassist is jiggling away by the end.

After that Hamburg gig, the Vaccines became my favourite band to have come around after I officially got old. By which I mean, when I stopped going to gigs simply because they’re gigs; I now only venture out for bands I know I’m going to like.

I knew I was going to enjoy the Vaccines, and they didn’t get close to disappointing. They even omitted ‘Wolf Pack’, meaning I got to moan on the way home about how they hadn’t played my favourite song, thus establishing my status as a long-term fan.

All in all, a perfect night out.

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Track 20: Sun Hits The Sky, Supergrass

In It For The Money, 1997

It’s widely considered that the Nineties were one of the better decades in Britain. It certainly felt that way growing up in them: we had great films, positive politics, the fashion, and of course the music. But for me, and no doubt millions of others, one thing tarnished these otherwise perfect ten years.

Manchester United.

They weren’t a problem at the start. As a young Liverpool fan in its natural habitat of south Wiltshire, I revelled in the Barnes-Beardsley-Burrows team of legend, all ready to settle in for another ten years of trophies. The cup final in ’88 had been annoying, certainly, and the Thomas goal of ’89 even more heartbreaking, But in 1990 we were league champions and only a lucky win for Palace in the semi-final had cost us another Double. Next year we’d put that right, certainly; it was nothing more than a hiccup in our ongoing trophy binge.

Except we didn’t. In stepped Man United who, through an unbeatable mix of ref-bullying, huge expenditure and 98th-minute winners, took our rightful, comfortable place at the top. It was confusing, depressing and hugely annoying.

Perhaps the low point for ABUs was the mid Nineties vintage: the Golden Generation of Giggs, Scholes, Butt, Neville and of course Beckham. “You can’t win anything with kids” mused Alan Hansen after a defeat to Villa in 1995. Oh how the United fans mocked when they finished that season with another league and cup double – conveniently ignoring the fact that alongside the kids were Peter Schmeichel, Paul Parker, Gary Pallister, Eric Cantona, Roy Keane and Andy Cole, all signed for sums that were huge back then (and would get you Rochdale’s reserve team left-back in today’s money). Without that experienced, expensive supporting cast, the kids would have won bugger all.

Likewise, the musical golden generation of that period – Oasis, Blur, Suede, Pulp – almost certainly wouldn’t have reached such heights of celebrity, acclaim, popularity and wealth without their own backing cast. And of all those just outside the top four places, Supergrass were one the biggest, battling for the UEFA cup spots with Ash, Ocean Colour Scene, Cast, Elastica and the Charlatans. It’s that depth – of quality, originality and productivity – that made Britpop what it was: a nationally significant, generation-defining movement, rather than just a few decent bands.Supergrass 1997

My abiding memory of Supergrass is that they were a lot of fun. Fun to see live, fun to listen to, fun when appearing on TV or the radio. Their songs are upbeat, infused with humour and a knowing nod towards the everyday experiences of the typical British adolescent. Their early albums are always an enjoyable, uplifting listen, spattered with some of the period’s most memorable hits (‘Alright’, ‘Moving’, ‘Richard III’) and a generous helping of high-quality album tracks (‘Your Love’, ‘Sofa (Of My Lethargy)’, ‘Jesus Came From Outta Space’).

As much as any Nineties band, they signified the positivity that was flooding the UK back then. You could never feel down when listening to Supergrass. ‘Sun Hits The Sky’ is a classic example of that: a cheering, energetic blast of goodwill and major chords.

And there’s probably a good reason behind this bonhomie: Gaz Coombes is a Man United fan, so the decade must have been utterly perfect for him. Imagine what he might have written if he’d had to watch the current team every week.

Top Three Supergrass tracks:

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Track 19: Strumpet, My Life Story

The Golden Mile, 1997

When not listening to music or scribbling bestsellers, I like to go hiking. And there are few places I love more than those world-famous peaks tucked away in north-west Cumbria.

Unfortunately I’m not the only one fixated with the Lake District. There are certain days, usually sunny summer ones, when you could find more elbow room at an Ed Sheeran gig than on the top of Helvellyn. So, a few years ago, I made the decision to avoid the famous peaks and devote my excursions to exploring the region’s outer reaches. And have been rewarded with stunning summits, little-known pubs and many wonderful scenescapes – all enjoyed in near solitude.

I understand why the big ‘uns are so popular. They are the highest, the best-known and also very beautiful (except Skiddaw, which is a tedious, pointless lump). But if you only ever tackle the tick-list favourites, you miss out on so much of what the Lakes has to offer.

Similarly, if you only ever listen(ed) to Britpop’s big beasts – Blur, Oasis, Pulp and Suede – you are missing out on wonderful bands like My Life Story. (There, we got to the music eventually, despite going round the houses a bit.)

When listening to The Golden Mile for the first time, you might wonder whether you’re listening to Britpop at all. It begins with the sort of orchestral daintiness – baroque harpsichord laid over a delicate strings ensemble – more reliably found at the Proms. But before long, ‘12 Reasons Why I Love Her’ fully kicks in, evolving into a hugely creative mesh of vocal and instrumental, albeit one still a significant step removed from the drums-bass-guitar staple of rock.MLS 1997

Their lyrics are similarly inventive: ‘Strumpet’ alone gives us such delicious couplets as “her feather boa constricts her” and “raised on marzipan, hooked on temazepam”. There are seams of genius throughout the album.

So enjoy your PulpBlurOasisSuede, your Elastica and Sleeper, your Ash and your Supergrass. But don’t forget to point your compass to the edgelands of Britpop at times. Tread carefully – there are some scary chasms and potentially disastrous missteps from which you may not emerge unscathed – but don’t be dissuaded. Dig out those old indie compilations and stop yourself from skipping through to the reliable old favourites. Listen to the Britpop Revival Show , which seasons the classics with forgotten gems to create the perfect Nineties flavour.

And block out an hour in your diary to listen to The Golden Mile in its entirety. It’s more than worthy of your time.

Top three My Life Story tracks:

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Track 18: Rocks, Primal Scream

Give Out But Don’t Give Up, 1994

Rocks.

A word with an impressive musical legacy. AC/DC had whiskey on them. Mick Jagger could only get his off when dreaming or sleeping. J-Lo advised us not to be fooled by hers, while both Neil Diamond and The Darkness made love on them. The latter with no ice.

The singular has an even more colourful backstory. David Essex asked us to rock on, Timberlake instructed us to rock our bodies, the Clash suggested we did it to (possibly at) the Casbah. Jacko wanted to rock with us, while Queen generously offered to do the heavy lifting. There are no doubt hundreds more, and that’s before we even start on rocking, rock n’ roll, Rockaway Beach, Rockin’ Chair, the Rock Steady Crew

It’s almost as if the music fraternity have identified a short, highly malleable term and bandied it about to avoid having to think of more original and meaningful lyrics. And we let them get away with it, fools that we are.

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Rock Lobster, there’s another one. Although I have an incurable dislike of the B-52s.

Primal Scream’s demands were clear: to get our rocks off. They even gave clear instructions as to what to do next (shake ‘em) and where the procedure should take place (down town). And they expressed all of this in one of the least complicated melodies ever composed, just two notes, on repeat. Yet sometimes the genius is the simplicity: it’s one of the most memorable choruses of the nineties, maybe of all time. Sing the first part to anyone in the street, and I predict at least three-quarters will sing the rest back to you, albeit it with a mildly surprised expression.

Perhaps it’s so simple because Primal Scream had exhausted themselves writing the verses. It’s not every tune that manages to crowbar analysis of crime, prostitution, addiction, economics, STDs, voyeurism, alcoholism and religion into little more than three and a half minutes.

Crocodile Rock. How did I forget that one?

As I’ve mentioned before, there was so damn much fantastic music around in the Nineties that it was hard to keep on top of it all, and some inevitably slipped by. Primal Scream were one such band for me. I always liked what I heard, kept promising myself I would delve a little deeper, but time and money were against me. I never even owned Screamadelica, which was a fixture on most CD racks two decades ago.

I did see them live, though, at T in the Park in 2002. They came on before Oasis and to say they blew them out of the water would be like saying Luke left a scratch or two on the Death Star. They were sensational; any band would have struggled to follow them.

Right, that’s it for this week. I have a new baby to change and a book to promote.

Let’s get the rock out of here.

Top three Primal Scream tracks (with the caveat I don’t know their back catalogue all that well – feel free to suggest others):

T in the Park 1994

Track 17: Saturday Night, Suede

Coming Up, 1996

Recorded music is a fundamental pillar of modern life, permeating almost every aspect. It is playing when we go to the shops; when we are stuck on interminable hold to a call centre; when you walk past a building site, go to a park, visit a friend. At half time in football matches, do they read out poetry or put on an audio book? No, they play music. Pop music.

My own life has trundled by to recorded music, via the media of records, tapes, CDs, radio shows and recently streaming. Seemingly endless car journeys to far-off holiday cottages dragged by to the sounds of The Seekers and Neil Diamond (the music lasting far longer than the Woolworths pic’n’mix, which rarely made it to the next town). Coming home from school I was greeted by Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals, beloved of my mum (and, if we’re honest, her children too). Sunday tea was eaten wordlessly and perfectly timed so that we could all hear the final, crucial places of the Top 40 on Radio 1.

By the time I reached my teens, Britpop had arrived and provided the backdrop to everything, from sixth form common room timewasting, to student parties where it provided a meagre salve to the realisation that, once again, absolutely everyone had managed to pair off except me (“I came second in the maths test this week! Surely that must count for something?!”)

Even the music we don’t want manages to trickle in. Once, in a moment of quiet reflection and no little horror, I realised that I knew all the words to at least ten Phil Collins songs. I don’t like Phil Collins. I have never actively listened to him. How has he come to take up space in my brain? It has seeped in, an osmosis of other people’s musical choices that I was unable to prevent.*Suede v5

But for all its many qualities – its ubiquity, its accessibility, its affordability and almost infinite variety – recorded music can never give you the full experience. To really know a band, to really love them, you have to see them live. And the greatest live band I have seen is Suede.

I’ve had the pleasure five times and they have been superlative on each occasion. I’ve seen them headline a festival, and uplift the Columbiahalle on my first ever visit to the city I now call home. The most memorable experience, though, was at the Rivermead, a few weeks after our family set up home there (moving to Reading has very few upsides, but its live music scene is one of them). Two songs into the set, Brett Anderson released a furious mid-song tirade at some poor bastard in the sound booth. I couldn’t tell if he wanted his mic turned up, down or something else, but by God did it need doing urgently. The most incredible thing, though, was how he managed to convey this without missing so much as a beat. He delivered his wrath while still singing ‘Trash’, still dancing to the beat, his lithe body jiving about like a leather-clad python.

The intro to ‘Metal Mickey’ still sends a tingle down my back, no matter how many times I’ve heard it. I adore ‘Saturday Night’, in fact all of Coming Up. Yet my abiding image of Suede, the overpowering essence of the band for me, is Brett, on stage, thrusting about with righteous fury and perfect elegance. I love many bands I haven’t seen live – the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Byrds – but those special moments, when it’s just you and your idols (plus twenty thousand others who don’t matter): those are what turns the love into devotion.

Top three Suede tracks:

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* Feel free to insert your own Steven Gerrard joke here; I haven’t in case his lawyers read my blog. Unlikely, but better to tread carefully.

A lifetime of loving the Levellers

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The Levellers played a pivotal role in my musical upbringing. They soundtracked several cider-drenched school parties. A Weapon Called The Word was one of the first albums I owned on tape. They are (to date) the band I have seen live most often. But, most crucially of all, they formed the basis of that most significant musical step: my first muso argument.

Spring 1994, a Duke of Edinburgh’s expedition in the Black Mountains. We gathered around the campfire to share a crate of French beers of sufficiently low percentage for our teachers to turn a blind eye. As one tape clicked off, I replaced it with the band’s recent eponymous album. The backlash began swiftly.

‘I hate this album. Levelling The Land was so much better.’

‘Too much didge. Way too much didge.’

‘It’s far too commercial, they’ve totally sold out. Ironic, eh!’

Shared chuckling, plus a little exhale of relief from the contributor who seemed to have used the word ‘ironic’ correctly (always a risk in the Morissette era).

I bade my time, waited for the sniggering to subside.

‘I quite like it.’

It was a mistake. The wrong opinion. The new album was, officially, far worse than the earlier ones. ‘This Garden’, the upbeat single, was “awful”; the piped instrumental at the end of ‘Julie’ was “horrendous, and far too fucking long”. Before we’d reached the end of ‘The Likes Of You And I’, someone had dug out their copy of See Nothing, Hear Nothing, Do Something, a compilation of B-sides, live performances and rarities that contained gems such as ‘Dance Before The Storm’ and ‘The Devil Went Down To Georgia’.

Call myself a fan? I hadn’t even known it existed.

During adolescence, the band had provided an easy way to show how political you were, long before the age of click-and-sign online petitions. You could sing along to ‘Battle Of The Beanfield’ to demonstrate your longstanding commitment to travellers’ rights. Nod sagely to ‘Another Man’s Cause’ to confirm your total opposition to whichever war they were singing about (Was it the Iraq war? Falklands? No one ever knew for certain). It was safer than listening to Chumbawamba, which could easily have you marked out as a communist. Plus Chumbawamba were shit.

But that campfire debate was a turning point. Before, you could listen to and cheer for whatever music you liked. But I felt something shift on that chilly Welsh riverside. People would openly mock my tastes, scorn my opinions – even change their minds about what music they liked. It opened my eyes to the pitfalls that lay ahead.

I was more cautious by the time I left for university. Stuart Maconie rightly claims there is no such thing as a guilty musical pleasure, but I bet he didn’t think that at 18. I kept my love of the Levellers hidden, a secret held close to my chest. Occasionally I would come across another fan whistling the intro to ‘Riverflow’ or humming the tune of ‘Just The One’. We wouldn’t proclaim our affection boldly; shared gestures and knowing glances were used to communicate: “Sure, we can discuss whether Mouth To Mouth is better than Zeitgeist, but not here; not with others around.”

I learnt to keep my affection quiet, a pleasure best enjoyed alone – until I moved to Scotland. And, joy of joys, several of my new colleagues were fans! The usual haters were there, of course, but there were enough of us to band together. I could once more be out and proud. We even took two cars’ worth of devotees on a glorious road trip to the far north of Skye to see the Drunk In Public tour. It remains one of my most memorable gigs.

From Scotland to Brighton; the Levellers’ home would now also be mine. It wasn’t the reason for moving there, but I can’t deny I was pleased by the connection. I even lived near The Level, a scrappy patch of grass which many locals claim is the true source of their name, rather than some 17th century rabble-rousers. (Given the number of people who congregate there each, looking like they’re auditioning to be in the band, that argument has some legs.) A colleague even claimed to be Mark Chadwick’s cousin. Or his friend’s cousin. Or the cousin of his friend. Something like that. The point is, Brighton is rightly proud of its musical sons.

There are also plenty of Levellers fans here in Berlin. There must be, given that I’ve seen them here three times in five years and each has been sold out. Maybe we need to form a society. Not everyone here is a fan, of course; their ability to splice opinion transcends international borders. My wife hates them. But then anarchy was never about keeping everyone happy.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what I like best. There is, naturally, a nostalgic element, memories of more carefree days. And if you have a folky leaning, then the music blends that with rock superbly: the violin/fiddle and electric guitar have rarely bonded so perfectly. I can take or leave the didgeridoo, but at least they use it sparingly rather than letting it take over all their work. And, all mockery aside, they write about issues that matter – if not to everyone, then to some – and give them a spotlight. The Levellers were raising my awareness of minority causes long before I even knew what the term meant.

And let no one doubt the band’s lasting influence. One of my fellow fans at school, who was sat around that campfire drinking pissy bottled lager, now lives on a boat. She chose the life she pleased, spending her days on rivers and canals free, the only law the river breeze.

I didn’t go that far in my dedication. But I still love the Levellers.

Top three Levellers tracks (and I had to think very long and hard about this):*

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* Other contenders included: Riverflow, Forgotten Ground, The Player, 100 Years Of Solitude, No Change, Saturday To Sunday, Julie …