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 29. He’s On The Phone, Saint Etienne

Tiger Bay, 1994

Life as a music fan can be tiring. There are bands you have to constantly defend an affection for, given how they cleaver opinion. Take U2; I have spent many hours arguing that Bono’s wankier moments are more than offset by any track from The Unforgettable Fire. Likewise the Levellers, a teenage favourite of mine who can make otherwise reasonable people froth like a rabid dog on a hot day.

It’s easy to find yourself on the other side, too. I have never understood the fuss about the Smiths, who seem to be an overhyped, light-touch jangle fest of overt northerness. And Nirvana? I really don’t get it at all. A lot of fuss for four good songs, one of them nicked from Bowie.

Just occasionally, though, we all meet up in that happy place where everyone sings the same tune. Kylie, for instance. Everyone loves Kylie. For her Kylieness more than her music, but even so, she’s a national treasure we’ve stolen from the Aussies. Likewise, I think we can all agree that Longpigs were absurdly awesome. And that Menswear were shite.

I’d like to think we all concur on Saint Etienne’s brilliance, too. Have you ever met anyone who doesn’t like them? If so, I’d be interested to know why – there’s simply no axe to be ground. The songs are chirpy and tuneful, yet different enough from both chart-focused pop nonsense or Britpop’s guitar standards to be interesting. There are far too many melodies to park them in the dance music camp. And they have a real curiosity value as well: who else would opt for a cover of never-knowns Candlewick Green so early in their career?

Their covers are one of the things that make them so special. It would be sacrilegious to suggest they improved Neil Young’s ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’, but by completely revamping it, they turned it into something so utterly, wonderfully different that it’s possible to like it (almost) as much as the original.

And displaying a welcome touch of deference, they left ‘Heart Of Gold’ alone, respecting the fact that some things are not to be touched.

Top three Saint Etienne tracks:

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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 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 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 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 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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