Track 26: Goldfinger, Ash

1977, 1996

I had a friend in Sheffield.

Mike and I had much in common. We both liked beer. We both liked football. That’s usually enough for two 18-year-old males to bond.

Mike was a one-paced-but-gritty central midfielder for my football team, the hilariously titled David Mellor’s Football Task Force. Think Steve Stone, or Mark Noble in today’s money. And he was a reliable drinking companion for Monday nights glued to the early days of the Premier League, on its new home of Sky TV.

More nobly, Mike accompanied me on cold, underwhelming trips to watch our respective football teams play in the small towns around Sheffield. If Swindon were away at Chesterfield, I knew who to call. And to return the favour, I would begrudgingly tag along whenever Palace were playing nearby.

barnsley-143463_1280It was on the way back from an incident-of-any-kind-free 0-0 draw at Barnsley on a dull grey November day (I am yet to be convinced Barnsley has any other type of day) when Mike shared a pearl of wisdom that I cherish to this day.

“We’re probably not going to keep in touch after university” he said, with curmudgeonly insight that defied his 18 years, “but I’ll always give you a thought when Swindon are mentioned on Final Score.”

Mike, you see, kept a mental list of people – friends, associates, randoms – who he associated with one club. Quickly I realised I had my own list, which persists to this day. For Aston Villa, it’s Andy, my friend Julia’s boyfriend (now husband: he even checked the Villa score between the speeches at their wedding). Scunthorpe are Christopher Davis, the son of my dad’s church warden; he’d never been there, he just picked them just to be different. Stoke City are Matthew Cubley, who turned up one day at my primary school without warning and left six months later. His was the first Northern accent any of us in darkest Wiltshire had ever heard, meaning we treated him with Elephant man-eqsue curiosity for the first few weeks.

It also works for bands. If it’s the Super Furries, I think of former housemate Gordon. Should Ben Folds Five make a rare appearance, then it’s Charlotte. With the Doors, I think of my brother. And change the radio station.

And if it’s Ash – see, we always get there eventually – then I think of Mike. Even before we got to football, we talked music. He revealed his love of Ash on the first night we met. And, as we sat around our one-pound pints in the hall bar, I drunkenly shared my own Britpop secret with him.

I didn’t like Ash.

The music, that was fine. Great, actually. They even pulled off that rare trick of having album tracks better/as good as the singles.

No, it was the mocking, goading, taunting title of their (officially) debut album which grated.

1977.

The year Tim Wheeler was born. Also the year I was born.

And that’s what hurt. He may as well have called it ‘I’m not even 20 and I wrote this: what the feck have you done with your miserable life, eh? EH?’. Wheeler might claim it’s a Star Wars reference, but we all knew that’s what he meant.

Time heals. I’ve mellowed now. I’m seeing Ash in Berlin in a couple of weeks and will look them in the eye as an equal. For I too have now achieved. Has Tim Wheeler written a book that reached #2 in Amazon’s bestselling snooker-related titles? No, he has not. Not according to Wikipedia, anyway.

So I can listen now to 1977, revel in its glorious energy, my cheeks no longer burning with shame and jealousy and fury. I’ve even smoked a Henri Winterman cigar. Without coughing.

The pints will cost considerably more than one pound, but I will raise a couple of them to Mike. Who – just as he predicted – I haven’t seen or heard from since university.

Top three Ash songs:

Ash 1997

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 12. Single Girl, Lush

Lovelife, 1996

Stick to what you know. That’s the advice on the many thousands of blogs and websites out there for budding writers. But it’s also why it’s taken so long to complete this post: because I don’t really know Lush.

I know of them, naturally. No one growing up in Nineties UK could fail to. But beyond the big singles like ‘Single Girl’, which cropped up regularly on the indie compilations that were a godsend to cash-strapped music lovers, I didn’t listen to them much back then.

The lack of a Lush-loving friend to hand over taped albums or burnt CDs was one reason for this failure, but mostly it was my own doing. I, like many an adolescent white British male, stuck almost religiously to bands made up of white British males. My musical diet consisted largely of Supergrass, Ash, Cast, Suede and Oasis. Perhaps a little Rialto or Super Furries to spice things up, but never straying far from the staples.

It wasn’t racism at work, nor misogyny (I didn’t even know what that meant as a teenager); rather, it was that little glimmer of hope these bands offered. The belief that, with a little bit of luck or a slightly  different set of circumstances, it could have been me up there. Young Brits were forming bands seemingly by the week; the odds of ending up in one were better that they’d ever been.

Having talent helped, of course, but, musically at least, I did: it was just channelled in the wrong direction. Thus, to this day, the only band I have ever played in is of the brass variety. (The criminal underuse of the euphonium in rock music is a subject demanding of its own blog post).

Lush had talent too, oodles of it, but I could never have been in a band like that. They were edgy, punky; they had the swagger and attitude that comes with growing up in London. ‘Ladykillers’ is one of the wittiest, sharpest tracks of the decade, but just listen to those lyrics. In a little over three minutes, lead singer Miki Berenyi – she of the incarnadine-hair and Bond Girl ancestry – ruthlessly (and deservedly) cuts down any man foolish enough to try it on. Imagine hearing that as a diffident 16-year-old; I was too shy to even look at the girls like her at school, let alone suggest we formed a cool, euphonium-led four-piece.

Still, better late than never, I’ve got to know Lush’s music, working through their back catalogue on Spotify while writing my novel. It’s brilliant; at times like a speeded-up version of Elastica, at others more tender and vulnerable. As with other bands I missed at the time, it’s been fun catching up.

And if they want any reciprocal tips on the best brass band tunes, they know where to ask.

Top three Lush tunes:

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