Track 23: Monday Morning 5.19, Rialto

Rialto, 1998

Rialto could never be described as a mainstream act, with just three Top 40 hits (hey, it’s three more than I’ve managed). But they were still a great Nineties band. For this song alone, they deserve their place on any list of great Nineties bands. It’s got it all: a great tune, a story to tell – that all-too familiar anxiety that the girl you love is off with Someone Else, and having more fun than with you – and a steady, determined rhythm. That rhythm is possibly because they had two drummers, for reasons I still haven’t worked out, 20 years on.

Here’s the problem, though. Two drummers is pretty much all I know about Rialto (that Kinky Machine 1995and some of them used to be in Kinky Machine), and even a wordsmith as accomplished as myself would struggle to put that through the mangle enough times to produce an acceptable-length blog post. This week’s musings, then, are about the bands who scuttled about the edges of the Britpop hype.

One-hit wonders would be unfair, and in many cases inaccurate. Describing them as small, or in any way inferior, is likely to invoke the ire of their fans or those who like to pick fights online. So let’s describe them as Britpop’s support cast, the bands who may not have reached the absolute pinnacle, but still contributed significantly to making that decade what it was: the Jellicle Cats to Blur’s Bustopher Jones.

Here are six of the best – OK, five of the best and one of the worst – acts that nobly padded out the  Shine albums and provided your (very) early afternoon entertainment at the Reading festival. Let’s raise a Two Dogs to them all.

If You Really Wanna Know, Ether

Welsh. The singer, a doppelganger for Dawson of Dawson’s Creek fame, had an oddly nasal voice. I don’t remember them having a second single, but this one’s a corker. My friend Gordon swears they were good, but he’s half Welsh and has a tendency to favour all things from that side of the Offa’s Dyke. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on this one, though.

Breathe (A Little Deeper), Blameless

I bought this as a single from Record Collector, and played it on repeat for quite a long time. I was convinced they were going to be huge, and I would have the early single to prove that I’d known of their genius all along. I have never met anyone else who remembers them. Bah. Still, it’s a great song. They should have been huge, dammit. How come Menswe@r were huge and Blameless weren’t? Fame can be a cruel, twisted bastard at times.

Lava, Silver Sun

I saw Silver Sun at the Leadmill. I remember this song in particular, because it is exceptionally catchy, even though it appears to be about worm pies and painting little pigs. Not sure what was going on there. Their brief little spurt of fame didn’t extend much further, although it seems they’re still a going concern. And they made enough of an impression to make it into my novel, and a pivotal scene no less. I’m sure they’re absolutely thrilled/delighted/honoured/humbled etc etc.

Tranquilizer, Geneva

I suspect Geneva might be ill-placed on this list, and were much bigger than I realised. If so, I apologise. This is a truly beautiful song, a compelling vocal performance set against a wonderful opening riff. ‘Into The Blue’ is equally good. How come Menswe@r were huge and Geneva weren’t? Life can be cruel etc etc.

The Flamingoes, Scenester

Confession time: I didn’t know about The Flamingoes until recently. Certainly not in the Nineties. Shame, as they were great. Yet another to file under the ‘How did Menswe@r…’ file. I learnt about them after learning about singer James Cook’s excellent book, Memory Songs, which is more than worth buying. Once you’ve bought my book, obviously.

Bennet, Mum’s Gone To Iceland

This song is diabolical. I’m only including it because my little sister knew someone in the band and she’ll be annoyed if I don’t include them. It’s a dull tune with crap lyrics, and it’s not even very on message. Mum’s Gone To Iceland? Why can’t Dad go to Iceland? Or a non-gender-defined parental guardian? They wouldn’t get away with this sort of caper now. Honestly, the Nineties were so behind the times.

But seriously, this one is shit. Don’t click on the link.

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Track 19: Strumpet, My Life Story

The Golden Mile, 1997

When not listening to music or scribbling bestsellers, I like to go hiking. And there are few places I love more than those world-famous peaks tucked away in north-west Cumbria.

Unfortunately I’m not the only one fixated with the Lake District. There are certain days, usually sunny summer ones, when you could find more elbow room at an Ed Sheeran gig than on the top of Helvellyn. So, a few years ago, I made the decision to avoid the famous peaks and devote my excursions to exploring the region’s outer reaches. And have been rewarded with stunning summits, little-known pubs and many wonderful scenescapes – all enjoyed in near solitude.

I understand why the big ‘uns are so popular. They are the highest, the best-known and also very beautiful (except Skiddaw, which is a tedious, pointless lump). But if you only ever tackle the tick-list favourites, you miss out on so much of what the Lakes has to offer.

Similarly, if you only ever listen(ed) to Britpop’s big beasts – Blur, Oasis, Pulp and Suede – you are missing out on wonderful bands like My Life Story. (There, we got to the music eventually, despite going round the houses a bit.)

When listening to The Golden Mile for the first time, you might wonder whether you’re listening to Britpop at all. It begins with the sort of orchestral daintiness – baroque harpsichord laid over a delicate strings ensemble – more reliably found at the Proms. But before long, ‘12 Reasons Why I Love Her’ fully kicks in, evolving into a hugely creative mesh of vocal and instrumental, albeit one still a significant step removed from the drums-bass-guitar staple of rock.MLS 1997

Their lyrics are similarly inventive: ‘Strumpet’ alone gives us such delicious couplets as “her feather boa constricts her” and “raised on marzipan, hooked on temazepam”. There are seams of genius throughout the album.

So enjoy your PulpBlurOasisSuede, your Elastica and Sleeper, your Ash and your Supergrass. But don’t forget to point your compass to the edgelands of Britpop at times. Tread carefully – there are some scary chasms and potentially disastrous missteps from which you may not emerge unscathed – but don’t be dissuaded. Dig out those old indie compilations and stop yourself from skipping through to the reliable old favourites. Listen to the Britpop Revival Show , which seasons the classics with forgotten gems to create the perfect Nineties flavour.

And block out an hour in your diary to listen to The Golden Mile in its entirety. It’s more than worthy of your time.

Top three My Life Story 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 1: Female Of The Species, Space

Spiders, 1996

I was convinced this song reached Number 1. It was everywhere in that glorious summer of ‘96, played constantly at festivals, parties and on the radio. Yet apparently it only climbed as high as number 14 in the charts; it didn’t even make the hallowed Top Ten. More people bought records by Gina G, Louise and Celine Dion that week. Songs that did reach Number 1 that year include one of those contemptible Robson and Jerome covers (the name of which I won’t write here, out of respect for the original) and ‘Forever Love’ by Gary Barlow. Peter Andre had two Number 1s,* as did Boyzone. A sobering reminder that the 1990s had a very dark musical side.

Space were the closest Britpop got to a novelty act (no, I don’t count Mike Flowers Pops). It’s hard to pin down exactly what it was that made them so much fun: the chirpiness of Tommy Scott’s accented singing, perhaps, or maybe the quirkiness of the lyrics – not every band could get away with releasing a song with “Tom Jones, Tom Jones” as its chorus. Whatever it was meant they weren’t treated with the same gravitas as the big bastions of Britpop. But that’s fine; music should be enjoyed and not every band needs to skulk about as if fame, fortune and widespread appreciation were absolutely the last things they were looking for.

This song is their most famous tune and can be found gracing the track listing of any nineties compilation album you care to mention. And it’s an intriguing one, a little outside the indie staples of the period: a spooky piano intro that is distinctively, instantly recognisable, while the lyrics are, frankly, a bit weird. I must have heard it well over 200 times, yet it still sounds fresh today: the mark of true quality. And Tommy Scott’s haircut was textbook Britpop, so they get an extra mark for that as well.

Top three Space tracks:

* ‘Flava’ and ‘I Feel You’, in case you were wondering. No, me neither.

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Book preview: Love In The Time Of Britpop

Why did I write a novel about Britpop? Because I had a child.

The connection might not be immediately obvious. Britpop bands weren’t known for a fixation with parenthood (although Pulp did venture in that direction). But, in short, becoming a father meant that my evenings were no longer free to watch bands; instead, I started to write about them. The end product was a quarter-autobiographical story about growing up in the Cool Britannia years.

The novel is finished, and currently pulling some shapes on the dance floor, bottle of Two Dogs in hand, hoping to catch the eye of a publisher or agent. It’s a slow process, it seems, and shoe-shuffling and head-bobbing hasn’t – yet – attracted a roving eye. In the meantime, I am going to blog. Partly because this is what the many thousands of websites about getting published advise, but mainly because writing to agents and publishers is no fun. By contrast, writing about music is.

Over the months, my writing process became finely tuned. One, open a beer and make sure two more are in the fridge for later. Two, open up my laptop. Three, select a CD from the shelves and listen through, from beginning to end, as the artists intended. No shuffling, no adverts, no interruptions when the Internet re-sets. Usually an album or, if more generalist inspiration was needed, then an Indie collection: I have a solid, albeit sadly incomplete, set of Shine compilations and the first six best…in the world… ever!s (I’m not certain how many they did in the end). There are worse ways to go about stimulating the creative process.

This blog is not an attempt to define or redefine Britpop; that’s been done a thousand times already. Much of it extremely well by active bloggers: I particularly enjoy this one and this one; and of course there are the musings of the commentators of the era, such as John Harris and Stuart Maconie.

Instead, I will be discussing the songs that form the chapter titles in, and to some extent shape, my novel. In total, that’s 33 songs; this blog might end up a bit like 9 Songs, without the rude bits. By the end of that process, I’ll hopefully have a publisher and/or agent secured (and please get in touch if you’re interested). If not, never mind; it feels good to be writing about music again.

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All photos on this blog are from Pixabay unless otherwise stated.