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 15: Grateful When You’re Dead, Kula Shaker

K, 1996

Maybe we do need another referendum. It would be close, admittedly; I’m still not sure which way I’d vote myself. Even now, twenty-odd years on, I still can’t decide if I love Kula Shaker or hate them.

There are plenty of arguments in favour. K was one of the finest debut albums of the Nineties, sounding fresh and confident and polished. Their version of ‘Hush’ is that rarest of things, a cover even better than the original. And anyone who can write a song about a trunk road in the South West, let alone make it good, deserves our enduring respect.

And yet … there was some incredibly nauseating about the whole thing. I am no expert on the ancient meanings of swastikas, but still know better than to defend them in public. A name like Crispian will always put us proles on edge (Crispin, on the other hand, is a superb name for a lead singer). And, as readers of Are You Experienced? will know, anyone young, male and British who pushes their ‘connection’ with India too forcefully is likely to be a bit of a dick.

Kula Shaker 1996This confusion of feelings over Kula Shaker is, almost certainly, a class issue. While most of us Britons have thankfully moved on from full-on cap-doffing mode, we still largely hold the upper classes in some reverence. They write our novels. They act on our stages. They own our newspapers. They run our country (sort of). We largely accept this.

But there remain two areas where we do not like them taking over: football and music.

Most football clubs these days pander to the businessperson and the foreign tourist rather than their traditional supporters, but the players still largely herald from society’s lower echelons. We wouldn’t have it any other way; posh lads can stick to rugby and cricket.

It’s the same with bands. While it’s not essential that they hail from the rough end of a council estate, it’s still welcome and half-expected. They should be telling the tales of the ‘real’ people like us, not the toffs who spend their days eating quails and riding horses.

I’m no working-class hero; I’ve never done a day’s manual labour in my life, unless paper rounds count. In fact, I’m as middle-class as they come: I read The Guardian and have place in the fridge reserved for tofu. But I’m not upper-class; not even upper-middle class.

This, I think, where Kula Shaker went wrong. Britpop was, by and large, about the common people: everyone from Supergrass to Oasis to Cast, and especially Pulp, sang about things we understood, from drug-taking to the seedy goings-on in the terraced houses of suburbia. Even semi-posh Blur knew it was important to tone down their Bohemian edges and put on cockney accents.

But with fancy names and famous relatives, the die was always cast against Kula Shaker. Whatever success they had was all too easily dismissed as an inevitability brought about through their connections. That’s the only reason they sold over a million copies of their debut album: because their rich associates were buying several thousand copies of it. Each. That’s how ‘they’ control us, see.

Yet, when pushed, if I have to decide, then I’m for. I like Kula Shaker. K is, as mentioned, a masterpiece. I am all for a bit of Indian influence in pop music, even if George Harrison beat them to it by thirty-odd years. I even have something in common with them, having discovered a swastika on the ceiling of our cellar of our Berlin flat.

But I knew better than to try and tell everyone it was really cool.

Top three Kula Shaker 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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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 7. Lucky Man, The Verve

Urban Hymns, 1997

There was more to the 1990s than Britpop. Indeed, a quick run-through of the Number 1s from the decade suggests that cheesy pop was by far the dominant commercial and cultural force, with the Spice Girls, Westlife, Peter Andre among the horrors to leave their filthy, manufactured mark on those times.

Then there were the genres that barely troubled the charts, such as dance, metal, trip hop, and the mysteriously elusive drum ‘n’ bass (I’m still not sure what that was, or where it went).

Many people chose their camp and largely stuck to it. But uVerve 1998nlike many of its Nineties peers, Urban Hymns transcended the boundaries of musical taste. You heard its melodies jangling from everywhere: student bedrooms and coffee shops; in supermarkets, cafes and bars; on commercial radio stations and at dedicated Britpop nights. The shoe-staring indie kids loved it, naturally, but so did the clubbers, the goths and the popsters. Druggies admired the post-addiction angst wrought deep in the lyrics. New Lads loved it as much as anyone, finding a new hero in Richard Ashcroft, who instantly made it acceptable to swagger through the streets swinging your arms and acting like a tit.

As a Britpop devotee, I had a copy; of course I did. But I didn’t listen to it that much back then. The songs seemed to go on slightly too long, meandering beyond their natural cut-off point (the whole album clocks in at well over an hour). It was also among the more melancholy and introspective offerings of the mid 90s. This is unsurprising, given the not-so-private turmoil the band had been through, but this was a period when I felt anything but. I was having the best time of my life, and Urban Hymns failed to chime with it; I was more at home with the upbeat jollity of bands such as Supergrass and Cast.

I dug Urban Hymns out while writing my Britpop-themed novel, to see if the more reflective, middle-aged me could reappraise and appreciate anew its qualities and charms, which are widely acknowledged by critics and fans alike. Still nothing; it’s just possible that I’m the only person who grew up in the 90s who doesn’t like it all that much.

In fact, in pretentious, self-important muso style, I prefer their earlier stuff, especially A Northern Soul; a simpler, more plaintive and (slightly) more upbeat record. This really is music. And the fact that I like it best, while most people prefer Urban Hymns, makes me extremely cool and knowledgeable. So there.

Top three Verve tracks:

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Track 4: She Makes My Nose Bleed, Mansun

Attack Of The Grey Lantern, 1997

Mansun passed me by at the time. There I was, running around the student pubs of Sheffield, telling anyone who would listen why Longpigs were so much better than current flavours-of-the-month Kula Shaker, and before I had even got halfway through my in-depth analysis, everyone was talking about Attack Of The Grey Lantern being the best album of the nineties. And, while I was trying to scrabble together enough money to buy a copy, Radiohead released ‘Paranoid Android’, attention shifted yet again and I could thankfully dredge up my well-honed monologue about how Pablo Honey was loads better than The Bends, actually.

Mansun 1999The net result is that I never got a copy of Mansun’s debut album. Music was expensive back then, with each album purchased (instead of burned or stolen) setting you back the best part of a tenner. With student grants only just stretching beyond Christmas, we had to be selective. The youth of today don’t know how luck they are. Yes, university fees are now nine grand plus a year, there are no jobs available and even fewer houses. But students today can listen to whatever they like, for free. And I don’t remember anyone eating avocado toast back then, either.

Praise the Lord for the gift of Spotify. While writing my Britpop-based book, I knew Mansun would have to be in there. So I listened to their back catalogue to see what I’d missed.

A lot, it seems. I knew the big hits, the ones that made the Shine compilations, like ‘Stripper Vicar’ and ‘Wide Open Space’. But there was so much more to enjoy; ‘An Open Letter To The Lyrical Taxpayer’ is a new favourite.

Is such widespread accessibility to music a good thing? It’s certainly convenient; if I hear a band I like on 6Music, I can simply add them to my playlist, safe in the knowledge that I’ll hear it again at some point in the future. And new bands now find it an easier to promote themselves and build a following, saving themselves (at least partly) from the whims of the record companies.

But do people develop the same obsession with a particular band, or a certain album, as we did back then? I played All Change on repeat for six weeks one summer, not just because I liked it, but because I didn’t have that many CDs back then (and when you’ve saved up your paper round money for weeks to buy a new CD player, listening to music on copied tapes no longer cuts it). As a result, I developed an affection for this album that will never die.

On the flip side, I was able to discover Mansun twenty years too late, without even having to leave my sofa or spend a single cent. Good for me, less so for them (I assume Spotify royalties take a while to tot up). So it’s a mixed bag, I guess.

And after that in-depth analysis of the state of the music industry, I’m off to listen to Kleptomania with some smashed avocado on toast and a decaf soya milk flat white.

Top three Mansun tracks (I feel a little unqualified to choose them, but here goes):

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Track 2: Finetime, Cast

All Change, 1995

It was All Change that first made me realise that we might, just might, be on to something special.

A friend in the sixth form – Jeremy, who also introduced me to another legendary bit of Cast 1995nineties culture, Father Ted – asked me if I’d heard of Cast. I hadn’t and so, next day, he duly handed me a tape of the album, which fitted neatly on one side (it wasn’t until I bought it on CD that I discovered it had a hidden track at the end). I took it home, stole something from the fridge, and stuck it on.

Wow.

From the opening chords of ‘Alright’, I knew I was going to love this band. It’s a superb opener, superior to Supergrass’s ‘Alright’ (the lesser-known, secondary Battle of Britpop) and things get better from there onwards. It’s a joyful, vibrant album, full of energy and crammed with melody.

Cast were even better live. Keith O’Neill remains the most energetic drummer I’ve ever seen, and a night in their company always flew by; don’t take my word for it, take Noel’s. That’s what I want in a band; I want them to be deliriously, stupidly happy on stage, utterly incredulous at the fact that they are getting to be rock stars, to do what so many of us dream of doing for a living. (Not me, though; first I wanted to be James Herriot, then I wanted to play for Liverpool. I still haven’t fully given up hope of the latter.) It’s comforting to know that the band are still touring, still playing festivals, still doing what they do best.

If they ever make a film of Love In The Time Of Britpop (a big if, admittedly, but let me dream), this will be the song that opens it. It was, and remains, a definitive nineties anthem and is, for me, Cast’s signature tune. Listen to it, marvel at it, then ponder this: it’s not even the best song on that album. Fourth place at best, after ‘History’, ‘Four Walls’ and ‘Walkaway’. Perhaps even behind ‘Promised Land’. A song this good, struggling to scrape into the top five on a debut album. That’s why Britpop was so fucking awesome.

Top three Cast songs:

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