Track 16: Songs Of Love, The Divine Comedy

Casanova, 1996

The boundaries of Britpop are decidedly fuzzy. What counts, in terms of sound, attitude, look, time? Who’s in and who’s out? Who gets to decide – the bands or the fans?

Several artists denounced the label at the time. Longpigs, who epitomised much of what the era stood for, wanted no part of it. And the debate rages on even today; the man behind the Britpop Memories blog was recently escorted by the online bouncers to the doors of Elastica’s Facebook page for daring to suggest a connection. If Elastica weren’t Britpop, did it even exist?

One comprehensive recent assessment is the excellent I Was Britpopped. The authors make several big calls in terms of who doesn’t get in, notably their exclusion of Radiohead (controversial, but probably correct). Yet they included the Cranberries, who, by nature of not being British, should surely be left out? Perhaps we can revise that one after Brexit when all these petty border squabbles will be forgotten in a glorious new world of free trade, fewer foreigners and a fully funded health service.

The book also includes The Divine Comedy, who were hugely popular in the mid-to-late 1990s and beyond. Hailing from Northern Ireland, they meet the geographic requirements, but I would place them just outside the boundaries musically. They were too poppy – not chart pop, but cheerful pop – and there was also that constant conundrum about whether they were a band or a person. I like my Britpop acts to be bands with a clear line-up, no sleights of hand. This soloist/band uncertainty leaves me nervous, as it does with the Lightning Seeds.

So were The Divine Comedy Britpop? Who knows. Who cares? As one reviewer of my book pertinently pointed out, few people called it Britpop at the time. It was just music. The label has taken on far greater posthumous significance. And debates about who was and who wasn’t might be enjoyable but are, ultimately, subjective.

Anyway, to the track: ‘Songs Of Love’. Otherwise – perhaps better – known as the Father Ted theme, which was written for the show and then worked into the song (not the other way round). Yet this overfamiliarity shouldn’t distract from the beauty of the tune, nor from the playful, witty lyrics, which capture perfectly that widely felt malestrom of schoolboy frustrations and urgings.

Indeed, there is great wisdom and humour to be found throughout their/his back catalogue. Versatility, too; anyone who can write a song about everything from obscure cricket fielding positions to unloved coach companies to celebrity allergies is surely deserving of our eternal respect, whether they/he were Britpop or not.

Top three Divine Comedy tracks

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Track 3: Play It Cool, Super Furry Animals

Radiator, 1997

 

Liam had swagger. Brett had style. Damon was an icon and Jarvis was legendary. But no nineties frontman was cooler than Gruff Rhys, and no band were cooler than the Super Furry Animals.

Just look at the evidence. They turned up at festivals in a tank. They released a song with the word ‘clusterfuck’ in it. Their artwork included cartoon foxes in Zorro masks. They released a song about mullets. They came on stage in a golf buggy. That’s cool.

I was never cool. Being the son of a vicar didn’t exactly help in that particular race – although not everyone was similarly afflicted, so I can’t blame it solely on that. The hair didn’t help, nor did the clothes. Professing a deep love of Erasure probably set me back a little as well, now I think of it.

The coolest kid at my school was Matt. He wasn’t the funniest, wasn’t the loudest, nor the best at sport. I wouldn’t say he was the best-looking, either – but the girls loved him, and the boys did too. He was half-French, which is so much cooler than being totally French. He had floppy hair and dimples when he grinned, which was a lot. He was into cycling years before anyone had even heard of Bradley Wiggins or therapeutic use exemptions.

SFA 1997Matt was also in a band. They were rubbish, and only ever played two songs: covers of ‘Johnny B. Goode’ and ‘House Of The Rising Sun’. They were never in tune, at least not with each other, and only rarely did their chosen time signatures overlap. It mattered not: anyone standing on stage with a guitar is cool.

There was no point in being jealous; Matt’s coolness was inherent. I could never have replicated it and trying to do so would have made me look even more stupid than my trainers had already managed. It was the same with the Super Furries. If anyone else had tried what they did, it would have looked forced, attention-seeking. It never did with them. It’s all about being BAE, as I understand the kids refer to it these days.

Their peak moment of coolness is also their finest tune. ‘The Man Don’t Give A Fuck’ still holds the record for the most uses of the word ‘fuck’ in a song (the live re-issue does, anyway). And when Steely Dan, who wrote the song’s main vocal hook, got a wee bit uppity, the Super Furries gave them all the profits from the single, knowing full well it would rarely be played on the radio.

It’s the cover of the single that clinches it, though. It features a footballer flicking Vs and running away. Everyone knows now that it’s Robin Friday, but hardly anyone knew back then. Most people had never even heard of him: this was 1996, the early days of the Internet, when obscurity was still a thing. To discover who that mystery player was, you needed to know someone who knew, or read it in a magazine. That was how we passed information on in those days.

But here’s the thing: not only did they know about him, they picked him to be on their single. Most bands in the nineties would have gone for Cantona, the ultimate don’t-give-a-fuck player. But Cantona did give a fuck. He wanted to be noticed. He needed the attention. Everything he did was for show. By contrast, you never got the impression that the Super Furries were trying to generate headlines. They were simply doing what they felt like doing.

While I hated him at the time, I can accept, at twenty years’ distance, that Cantona was cool – but he was acting cool. The Super Furry Animals just were, and that’s the only way to play it.

Gordon SFA pic

Top five SFA tracks, as selected by Super Furries’ superfan Gordon Thomas: