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 25: Drug Drug Druggy, Manic Street Preachers

Gold Against The Soul, 1993

The Manics scared me shitless.

I wasn’t ready for them. There I was, gadding about in rural Wiltshire listening to Pet Shop Boys, Crowded House – even a bit of Levellers when I thought I could get away with it. But it was time for something different, a bit less poppy.

I headed to my brother’s room in search of something to borrow, and maybe a couple of the cigarettes he kept hidden in his desk drawer. The Doors? No thanks. The Mission? Never heard of them.

What’s this one … the Manic Street Preachers. They did ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’, didn’t they? I like that one. The album cover’s a bit weird, but I’ll give it a try.

Never start with The Holy Bible, kids.

It’s like starting your drinking career with a pint of absinthe. It left me shocked to the ossicles: I needed several soothing hours of Erasure and Paul Young before I could even leave my bedroom again.

After that, everything about the Manics petrified me. The look, the sound, the fans. Especially the fans. But by the time I’d left for university, they had mellowed. Everything Must Go was released in that glorious summer of ’96, when times were good, we were all Behaving Badly and anything seemed possible until the current England manager hit the weakest fucking penalty in history.

But Everything Must Go was more my sort of thing. Gentler, less likely to induce you to go on a violent killing spree or a lifetime of substance dependency. I even found out who Kevin Carter was and managed to bore several girls on my course with my newly acquired knowledge.

Manics 1994The reasons for that mellowing, particularly the events around Richie Edwards’ disappearance, have been discussed by far greater minds than mine and I have nothing very useful to add to the many words out there. But I was certainly less scared of them once they started singing about Elvis impersonators and libraries and things I could relate to.

Not everyone was in favour of this new direction, of course. Some argue, even now, that the early albums are the real Manics, that those songs matter more – and the Manic Street Preachers’ songs matter to their fans more than for any other band I can think of.

With two decades’ worth of hindsight in the bag, it’s now the earlier stuff I like best, too, especially Generation Terrorists and Gold Against The Soul. The Holy Bible is still a bit much for me, though. I’ve tried to like it lots of times, I just can’t do it. It’s the same with olives.

But to anyone else who, for some curious reason, has never listened to the Manics, I can say only this: start with the one about cranberry juice, then work your way up the likes of ‘She Is Suffering’, ‘Of Walking Abortion’ and ‘Die In The Summertime’.

Top three Manics tracks:

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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 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 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 5: Connection, Elastica

Elastica, 1995

If you asked me to sum up the spirit of Britpop in one half-second, I would point you towards Justine Frischmann’s eyebrow as she says ‘oh’ right after the first chorus of ‘Connection’. It’s moody, naturally, but not surly; there’s a touch of knowing humour in there. Taking it all too seriously was never going to go down well; Cool Britannia was built around a widespread sense of bonhomie, a sense feeling good about ourselves.

It was easier back then, of course. Alongside the music, politics felt vaguely positive, while cinema enjoyed a notable peak in the nineties. Even the England team was half-decent back then. And what does the youth of today have? Brexit, Ed Sheeran and a return to defeats in semi-finals. I pity them, really I do.

Elastica 1995This track was an early marker for what was to follow, justification for the rapidly brewing Britpop buzz. And it’s a classic of the genre: short, at under three minutes; punchy and guitar-driven; and, of course, excellent – never underestimate the foundation of quality upon which the hype was built. Oh, and they’re all wearing black in the video, which is what I remember most people wearing in the Nineties.

Elastica burned briefly and brightly, but, for reasons well documented, and didn’t have the sustained career of some of their contemporaries. But does it matter when you’ve written a debut as good as theirs? Sometimes, one album is all you need to make an indelible mark on Britain’s musical culture.

Top 3 Elastica songs (not especially radical choices, but then there’s not hundreds to choose from):

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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:

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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Track 0: All Hype, Longpigs

The Sun Is Often Out, 1996

I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like Longpigs. I’ve met plenty who have almost certainly never heard of them, but no one who has ever says a bad word, only plaudits. And, in most cases, points out that they are underrated. They are, in this respect, Britpop’s equivalent of Denis Irwin: if everyone says they are underrated, surely, by definition, they are rated?

Their star didn’t sparkle for long, but in that brief time together, they gave us The Sun Is Often Out, perhaps the most perfect album of the nineties. Even the album sleeve was wonderful, with its vivid baby blue daubings offset by faceless businessman.* The second album, Mobile Home, received nothing like as much acclaim (although it’s still worth a listen: ‘Blue Skies’ and ‘Free Toy’ are both excellent). But their debut was a stunner.

Alongside anthems such as ‘Far’ and the Chris-Evans-promoted ‘She Said’, and the melancholic ‘On And On’, stood gems such as ‘All Hype’. It’s the shift in style that makes the song. After a tentative, subdued opening, it abruptly changes gear, turning up the volume, cranking up the guitars and kicking over the drum set. In doing so, it exemplifies one of the many things that made the band special: creativity. There was nothing formulaic about their song-writing, from the switching time signatures of ‘Elvis’ to the echoing vocals of ‘The Frank Sonata’.

‘All Hype’ is also a useful should you ever find yourself needing to defend Britpop from its critics (although the band rejected the label; like others, I’m not sure why but hey, it’s their call). Hold the song up as Exhibit A for the defence: this overlooked cracker was merely an album track from one of the smaller bands of the genre. And it’s fucking brilliant. The depth of quality to the music produced in the 1990s is just one of many, many reasons to still love it, even 20-odd years on (and on).

Top three Longpigs tracks:**

* I’m not adding artwork or lyrics or anything, as I’m not too hot on copyright laws and musicians’ lawyers are, by all accounts, fucking evil.

** At the moment, and not including the track under discussion. These things are always changing. That’s the whole point.

21.11.18 The chapter title got changed to ‘Happy Again’ in the final edit. But it was originally ‘All Hype’.

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