Track 32. If…, The Bluetones

Return to the Last Chance Saloon, 1998

Take a moment. Imagine that the Beatles wrote ‘If…’.

It’s not a huge leap to make. The song has a laid-back, shuffling bassline not a hundred miles from ‘Come Together’, and the singalong finale is positively Hey Judian. The lyrics are also Fab Four-esque, eschewing the usual boy-loves-other stuff to explore … well, I’m not 100% sure. A discussion of prison release dates, maybe?

But think what could have happened if it had come out thirty years earlier, perhaps replacing ‘Good Day Sunshine’ on Revolver or doing us all a favour and booting ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ into touch. Today, it would be an unofficial national anthem. Kids would sing it during school assemblies; football crowds would use it to abuse referees; we would hear it regularly via the hinterland music that soundtracks our lives.

Yet I almost never hear it. Outside of dedicated Britpop shows, I don’t think I’ve ever heard it on the radio. No one I know ever hums it, no cover bands take it on. And this is an injustice, because it is the fifth-best song of the 1990s (the others being, in ascending order, ‘A Little Soul’, ‘The Man Don’t Give A Fuck’, ‘On And On’ and ‘Spice Up Your Life’*).

Bluetones 1995So good a song is it that it can heal damaged-if-not-fully-broken hearts. I listened to the Bluetones a lot at university; partly because they were great, but there were a lot of great bands around back then. But the Bluetones were the only Britpop band that my sort-of student girlfriend deemed tolerable (sort-of my girlfriend, not sort-of a student). As a result, Return To The Last Chance Saloon got many, many repeated plays back in ’98, as I leapt to the CD player to avoid the awful alternative of it being replaced by something from the (mercifully short-lived) drum’n’bass  genre.

The relationship didn’t end that well – for me, anyway, she seemed to survive easily enough – and by association, that album should have been condemned to a lifetime at the back of the drawer, never to be played lest it tugged at still-raw wounds. But even now, even though it still carries that painful whiff of rejection, I still love it. And I love ‘If…’ most of all, because it’s soaringly, achingly brilliant.

It’s curious, then, to discover that so few people share this view. It never makes listicles for the best Britpop tracks – not this one or this one or this one. And if the combined readership of NME honestly think that ‘Kandy Pop’ by bIS is a better tune, then I have little hope left for Britain.

Incredibly, ‘If…’ doesn’t even make lists of the top ten Bluetones tracks. And the official Bluetones 1998video on YouTube has a mere 55,000 views. Respectable enough, but still only 0.003% of the total garnered for ‘Baby Shark‘. Seriously, what is wrong with people?

One thing this demonstrates is just how much competition there was back then. At times, I struggled with writing my Britpop-themed book – it’s never easy trying to pen a grubby sex scene that you know your dad is going to read – but writing about the music never caused a problem. There were so many bands, songs, gigs to choose from, so many joyful musical memories to include, that it wasn’t possible to fit them all in.

I made sure the Bluetones were included though; no question about that. (They get a live gig and the title of the final chapter, if you’ve not already read it. And if not, why not?)

This is my last chapter-based blog post and, over the course of 33 songs, I have at times wondered whether Britpop is quite as important as we Nineties aficionados think it is. Did it really, hand on heart, have a greater impact than any other musical era? I have seen thousands of people – all of them roughly 10 years older than me – pack out a field in Guildford to watch a line-up of Sinitta, Kajagoogoo and one-quarter of UB40. Trust me, they were just as excited about it as any Britpop audience I have seen. Poor fuckers.

I don’t think there is anyone out there who would credibly claim that Bros were better than Blur, or that Five Star can hold a candle to Pulp. The point is, every generation likes to think that they produced the best music.

Only mine, though – the Britpop generation – is right.

Top three Bluetones tracks (other than ‘If…’):

Bluetones 1996

* This is a joke. Number 1 is of course ‘Flying Without Wings’.

 

Track 31. Come Back To What You Know, Embrace

The Good Will Out, 1998

I’m nearly there. Nearly at the end.

Thirty-one tracks written, and just one more to go after this. The finishing line is in sight.

And I’m tired. Very, very tired.*

The idea behind this blog was to write regularly about music, to demonstrate to book publishers that I work constantly at my craft, hone away, engage with my audience and that they should offer me a contract.

Didn’t work.

Instead, it became a way to promote my self-published Britpop book to fans of the bands therein. And it’s worked to that end; sales are ticking along nicely (thanks, everyone).

But there’s only so many ways to approach an article about 20-plus-year-old songs, only so many angles to take. Eventually you’ll hit a wall.

This track is my wall.

EmbraceI like ‘Come Back To What You Know’ but only because it has a nice tune. I have nothing deeper to share; no clever intuition about what the lyrics mean, no insights about how it shaped the musical landscape.

The band? Let’s try the band themselves. Well, they came quite late to the Britpop party of course, arriving on the scene just as­– no no, I did that one with Travis a couple of weeks ago.

I like Embrace. Everyone likes Embrace (but we did that with Saint Etienne last week). The problem is, I have nothing to say about Embrace. I never listen to Embrace.

Let me think …

My ex-housemate Gordon was a fan, and played The Good Will Out more often than was strictly necessary when it came out. But I’ve already dragged him in for Ether and the Super Furries. It’s not fair to whore him out once more. Besides, does anyone care what my ex-housemate listened to two decades ago? Does anyone care what I listened to back then? Or now?

Maybe, just maybe, there’s only so much to be said about Britpop.

This next statement may be considered blasphemous in certain quarters, but … was it all that special? Do the many naysayers have a point when they say that it was all hype and little substance, that those of us who look back through Union Jack-tinted spectacles are fooling ourselves about its ongoing relevance?

Take Oasis, for example. Great tunes, shite lyrics. Go on, try reading the words to ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’. Read them, don’t listen to them, the melody distracts you.

It’s gibberish. A soup of unrelated nouns, verbs and adjectives. Even when they’re not spouting incoherent nonsense, they’re singing rubbish. So they’re free to do whatever they choose, are they? They can sing the blues if they want?

Great. So can anyone. There are no laws against it, and it hardly demonstrates cutting-edge rebellion. But Liam, here’s the thing: you’re not singing the blues, you’re singing rock and roll. So you’re not even exercising your proclaimed free will.

Next.

Oh, Elastica. Seriously, what’s all the fuss about? They only squeezed out two albums, the Wire smash-and-grab raid and the other one that no one remembers. Robson and Jerome managed two albums in far less time, and both of theirs went to number one.

And then there’s Pulp.

Everyone loves Pulp, right? Of course they do, with all those clever word plays and knowing lyrics about the working classes and seedy council estate sex and being northern. But it’s not as it they were the first to get excited about that. Different Class was basically ‘Coronation Street: The Musical’.

Let’s be clear: Britpop was largely great because we, the fans, were young back then. To anyone born between 1973 and 1978, it formed the soundtrack to the years when we could drink without fear of the hangover, a time when every night out held the vague possibility of sex. We might think it’s special, that it crosses generational divides with its enduring brilliance but, to this day, I have yet to meet anyone more than five years younger than me who likes, cares about or ever thinks of Britpop.

I still love it, though, despite its flaws. It was still the greatest music the UK has ever produced.

Except maybe the Sixties.

But it takes me back to my youth. And I like that. After all, what’s wrong with a little nostalgia?

Top three Embrace tracks (not straying very far from the curve here, admittedly):

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* This may also have something to do with two under-threes in the house. Definitely more than twice the work of one.

Track 28. Tied To The 90s, Travis

Good Feeling, 1997

It was all beginning to unravel by the time Travis showed up.

Just before Travis released their debut album in 1997, Be Here Now had blown Britpop’s foundations away, and not in a good way. Two years later, when they presented The Man Who to us, they did so amid the ruins of the empire, crows picking at the bodies of those who had failed to escape in time, as the rest of us peeked around the corner of the millennium to see what might be heading our way.

Did Travis know what was happening? The gentle Britpop-mocking lyrics of ‘Slide Show’ suggest they quite possibly did. Indeed their songs would have nestled snugly in among the slower, wittier side of Britpop. Instead, they were late to the party, pottering in cheerily with two four-packs of lager just as everyone else was thinking only of sleep and getting a kebab to try and suppress the vomit from rising.

So late, in fact, that many associate them more readily with what followed the morning after: Stereophonics, Coldplay, Starsailor and Keane.*

Toploader too. The musical equivalent of coming around to find a gatecrasher has shat in your parent’s bed and smashed up your CD collection. I’d have taken the complete meltdown of western civilisation promised by the Millennium Bug if it had spared us ‘Dancing In The Moonlight’.

Yet to mark Travis as guilty by association with Britpop’s mediocre followers would be to overlook the excellence of their earliest works. The Man Who is familiar to millions, its big singles having squatted in our radios for much of 1999, even though the best tracks are the previously mentioned ‘Slide Show’ and little-played ‘The Fear’.

TravisBut it’s Good Feeling where the real gems lie. ‘Happy’ is a joyous little burst of cheerfulness, ‘Tied To The 90s’ managed to pre-empt what a lot of us would soon be feeling, while ‘U16 Girls’ marks another notch in rock’s proud catalogue of songs about paedophilic near-misses (see also Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, Johnny Burnette, Neil Sedaka, even the sacred Beatles. A worryingly popular theme for pop music, to be honest).

Where do we place Travis, then? Exalt them a worthy encore to Britpop, the methadone to soothe us through the post-addiction struggle? Or charge them with the softening of our rock, their over-sensitive whines about driftwood and why it’s always raining seeping into the fissures of the nation and drowning out the music of northern council estates and London’s grimier quarters, making us ask ourselves repeatedly why life is so unfair and I don’t like your opinion and now we’re all no-platforming snowflakes who cannot abide listening to any views we don’t like.

Are Travis responsible for this soft-centred, self-obsessed, entitled, obese and over-indulged nation we’ve become? Did they really read Britpop’s last rites, and close the curtain on this country’s finest five years of music? It’s a undoubtedly a harsh accusation.

But still better than being held responsible for Toploader.

Top three Travis tracks

* Note: I have seen both Coldplay and Keane live and they were both excellent. And I like ‘Everybody’s Changing’ as long as I don’t hear it too often. Viva La Vida too. But some of their later albums are truly horrific, so the charges stand.

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Track 27: What Do I Do Now?, Sleeper

The It Girl, 1995

The Britpop behemoth had an insatiable appetite, gobbling up many a band that claimed they wanted nothing to do with it. But others leapt gladly upon its broad shoulders, eager to see where it might carry them. And no band seemed to enjoy the ride more than Sleeper.

They ticked every Britpop box going. Met at university? Check. Based in and around Camden? Check. One-word band name? Yup. Knowing, Carry-On-esque lyrics about saucy bedroom antics and the trials of romantic life? Most definitely.

Three albums and then finished?

Well, kind of.

SleeperBecause Sleeper are back: they’re playing live and writing new music. Whether it will still count as Britpop depends on your perspective – was it was a stylistic label or a time-bound phenomena? – but it will undoubtedly sound warmly familiar. Some critics dismissed their songs as one-paced, but in the Nineties that pace was perfect for head-nodding, beer-drinking and shoe-shuffling.

They’re not the only ones keeping the Britpop flag flying. Even now, 25 years after it all began, the spirit lives on in weekends and festivals; you can listen to the bona fide classics and forgotten gems on dedicated radio shows; people are sharing memories and memorabilia on Twitter, writing thoughtful blogs about it, making films about it … you can even go on Britpop cruises these days.

And of course there are five-star rated novels about the whole shebang. Yours for a very reasonable £6.99, or £0.99 as an e-book.

To paraphrase clubland’s Brian Potter, Britpop will never die. Not while there are still so many to whom it means so much. There are many who wish it would, of course, suggesting it’s to blame for everything from Brexit* to the decline in musical creativity in the Nineties, and especially Laddism. I never quite understood that last charge; I don’t remember seeing many Lads or Ladettes at Longpigs gigs, and their anthem of choice was the chorus to ‘Born Slippy’ more often than Oasis.

But as long as those of us who love it outnumber them, Britpop will continue to be held up as a good thing. I’d happily trade the fun-loving Britain of ‘96 for the divided, expensive mess we have referendummed ourselves into.** What’s worse, Union Jack guitars and mockney accents, or lies on buses and vitriolic politics? Was having Europe’s envy so much worse than having its disappointment and apathy?

It’s probably unrealistic to expect a new Shed Seven album to bring a divided nation together once more, or an Ocean Colour Scene tour to clamp down on the far right. Even the reformation of the ever-cheerful Sleeper might not fully get us through the next few months of TV debates and no deals and food rationing.

But it certainly can’t hurt to have a bit of decent new music to look forward to.

Top three Sleeper tracks:

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* He concludes that it wasn’t, to be fair. But it was a shameless and unnecessary bit of taunting.

** Admittedly I no longer live there, but it’s no prettier viewed from a distance. Trust me.

 

 

 

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:

Auteurs

* 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 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.

Track 14: Disco Down, Shed Seven

Let It Ride, 1998

Mr Men books. Blockbusters with Bob Holness. Hot buttered crumpets. There are certain pillars of British life about which no one has a bad word to say. And to that list, I add Shed Seven.

Everyone loves the Sheds. Why wouldn’t they? They play cheerful, rollicking, singalong rock and don’t take it or themselves too seriously. They come across as all-round good eggs. It’s possible that they drown orphaned puppies in their spare time, but if they do, I’ve never heard about it. I’d probably forgive them anyway.

Shed Seven 1996

Shed Seven were in many ways the archetypal Britpop band, the ones we’d send to Jupiter if we discovered alien life forms there (ones with a deep curiosity about the musical culture of one tiny island a quarter of a century ago). Most of the key boxes were ticked: guitars-and-drums led; male (as most Britpop bands were, despite a few notable exceptions); northerners with floppy haircuts. They produced three albums during their 1990s heyday and have, like many of their contemporaries, enjoyed an uplifting recent renaissance.

The music also covered all the Britpop bases, offering everything from soul-searing anthems to unto-the-dancefloor tubthumpers to indisputable classics of the era. And they were – still are –a fearsome live act, a band you would always make time to see if they came to your town, assured of a superb night out. And they’re still touring, playing their legendary Shedcember dates most years. Get a ticket if you can.*

Britain is having a tough time right now, and it’s likely to get tougher in the months ahead. But however bad it gets – whether Boris becoming prime minister, the EU getting tired and just telling us to fuck off, or even Man United winning the league – we can find some small solace in the fact that, like fish and chips on the beach, Sports Report at five pm on a Saturday and the theme tune to All Creatures Great And Small, we will always have Shed Seven.

Top three Shed Seven tracks:

* No dates for 2018 announced yet … 

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Track 13: One To Another, Charlatans

Tellin’ Stories, 1997

Career-wise, I’m lucky. When not wasting time in coffee shops or reading about Liverpool’s latest match/transfer/injury, I write about environmental issues. Subjects that I care about, and which (usually) interest me. I even travel to exotic places on occasion,  once sleeping in the President of Mali’s exclusive suite (he wasn’t there, just to be clear).

But more often than I’d like, when I eventually sit at desk and prise open laptop, boredom sets in swiftly. I’ll spend today doing what I did yesterday, and what I’ll be doing tomorrow. Typing, reading, flicking over to Twitter, making more coffee …

Repetition is a fundamental element of any job, of course. It might be more stimulating to do something fresh each day, but it wouldn’t work in practice. How would you feel, sat in the dentist’s chair, if the person in white with the sharp metal things casually mentioned that this was the first time they’d extracted wisdom teeth? How reassuring would it be if a pilot stopped you as you boarded the plane, asking if you knew what any of the buttons did? Even in ultimately pointless professions, it rarely ends well to let just anyone turn up and have a go for the day. Loris Karius provides painful proof of that.

Is it the same for musicians? They live a life many of us would greedily assume: headlining festivals, trashing hotel rooms, the occasional spot of devil worship. But does all this hold an endless, unbreakable thrill? Do they, too, get bored with having to do the same thing day after day?

Charlatans 1999Earlier this year, I went to see the Charlatans with my good friend and musical guru AJ. I utterly love the Charlatans and, in the run-up to the gig, dug out all their CDs to refresh my memory of their genius. Among other things, this indulgent evening reminded me that I love ‘One To Another’ more than any of their other works of brilliance. And when, shortly after arriving at the venue, AJ managed to get hold of a setlist from their merch stall, I knew for certain they would be playing it.

But as we waited for the band to arrive, I wondered: do they still love it? However many times I’ve listened to the song, they have done so a thousand-fold times more. And they have sat through the rubbish versions too: the shitty early demos, the rehearsals gone wrong, the aborted soundchecks. Surely some of its majestic sheen must have worn over the years?

And the Charlatans have been around for many, many years. They were there before Britpop, and have endured, largely without respite, since its demise. There have been solo side projects and new members added – but the core of the band have been hearing their songs for close to three decades now. That’s a long time to be strumming the same chords.

The lights dimmed; tendrils of smoke crept across the stage. On they came, to heartfelt, grateful acclaim, and set about doing what they do. And, as the setlist had promised, before long that oh-so familiar keyboard-heavy intro kicked in. The crowd became giddy, like a kid who hears the doorbell ring, heralding the long-awaited arrival of a much-loved family friend … but was the friend as pleased to see us?

Martin Blunt hunched over his bass, fretting over frets; Tony Rogers thumped his keys with righteous fury; Tim Burgess leant far out from the stage, his peroxide haystack bobbing with each beat, his arms reaching into the worshipping crowd that chorused back every word he sang.

Do they still enjoy playing it?

It certainly looked that way.

AJ’s top three Charlatans tracks:*

* He would have opted for ‘One To Another’ but I wouldn’t let him. He wanted that stated on record, though.

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Track 11. You’ve Got A Lot To Answer For, Catatonia

Way Beyond Blue, 1996

Many theories have been put forward to explain the rise of Britpop. There’s the coincidence argument: several similar-sounding bands just happened to be around at one time. And there’s the backlash angle: listening to American grunge for too long drove young Brits to create their own sound. Another is plagiarism: that Blur, Oasis et al were merely aping what their Sixties forebearers had done thirty years earlier. Or was it all part of the wider wave of positivity sweeping the UK at that time, thanks to Euro 96, Tony Blair and Union Jack dresses?

It’s likely that each of these played their part. But it should never be forgotten that a rich seam of musical talent ran through the songs and bands of the time. Noel Gallagher is known for many things – his wit, his eyebrows, his sibling rivalry – but above all, he’s a phenomenal guitarist. Alex James: to some he’s a floppy haired cheesemaker, but to others he’s first and foremost a fine bass player. The Radiohead lads are all creative genii of the very highest order.

Catatonia 2It’s hard to think of a Britpop band who didn’t bring something to the party. Which brings us to Catatonia. A late arrival, maybe – they didn’t release their first album until autumn 1996 – but they also left an indelible mark, thanks largely to their charismatic lead singer.

Cerys Matthews’ voice is a truly wonderful thing. Rich, confident and as Welsh as pint of Brains bitter on the top of Cader Idris, she was equally at home duetting with Tommy from Space or tormenting her consonants in ‘Road Rage’. It’s a voice that sticks in the memory and it led the band to greater heights than they might otherwise have managed.

The best voice of Britpop? It was certainly the most distinctive, and that’s just as important. Never underestimate the need for an engaging front person. And its that showwomanship that secures her place at the front of my Britpop dream team.

Lead singer: Cerys Matthews.

Lead guitar: Bernard Butler. The toughest decision, but the intro to ‘Metal Mickey’ swings it in his favour.

Rhythm guitar: Richard Hawley. OK, he was lead guitarist for Longpigs, but he has demonstrated his versatility over the years.

Bass: Mick Quinn. Just listen to the opening to ‘Lenny’ and you’ll hear why; it takes something special to play one note for the opening 25 seconds of a song and still make it a thing of wonder (although Bryan Ferry just tops him on that score).

Drums: Keith O’Neill. My favourite drummer of the Nineties, an irresistible fusion of energy, ability and fury.

Songwriter: Thom Yorke. Yes I know, Radiohead weren’t Britpop, yadda yadda yadda. But he’s still at it and still wonderfully creative and weird.

Lyrics: Jarvis Cocker. Down with ballads: bring forth the songs about the seedy goings on in council estate bedrooms.

Top three Catatonia tracks:

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Photo from Pixabay

 

Track 9: London, Can You Wait?, Gene

Olympian, 1995

“I can’t stand Gene.”

These were the first words my brother-in-law ever said to me.

As far as I can remember; it’s possible – probable even – that he said ‘hello’ or ‘I’m Andrew’ beforehand. But it’s this curt, scathing assessment of Gene that sticks in my mind.

What I am certain of is that I didn’t defend them. He was older, my sister’s new boyfriend, and already a student. At Cambridge, no less. I didn’t dare counter; I must be wrong, I surmised. If he didn’t like them, they must be rubbish.

Except they weren’t. Gene were superb. A little melancholic, perhaps – they definitely weren’t the band to put the ‘pop’ into Britpop – but they were perfect for those long and lonely nights as a teenager, sipping 50p lager from Lidl and wondering why nice girls hated you.

GeneWhile some very mediocre bands got swept up by the Britpop movement, embalming them with greater recognition than their music merited, others didn’t get the appreciation they deserved. Gene are a case in point for the latter. Despite both albums hitting the top ten, they are almost always overlooked in debates about the greatest bands of the decade.

The excellent Nineties music bible ‘I Was Britpopped’ notes that they were intentionally similar in style and sound to The Smiths, and it’s possible that, in another time, their star may have burned a little brighter and they may have found fame approaching the level of their Manchester idols. They could have been kings.

And the next time I see my brother-in-law, I’ll tell him that I like Gene. I’m forty; it’s time to stand up for what I believe in.

Top three Gene tracks:

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