Track 31. Come Back To What You Know, Embrace

The Good Will Out, 1998

I’m nearly there. Nearly at the end.

Thirty-one tracks written, and just one more to go after this. The finishing line is in sight.

And I’m tired. Very, very tired.*

The idea behind this blog was to write regularly about music, to demonstrate to book publishers that I work constantly at my craft, hone away, engage with my audience and that they should offer me a contract.

Didn’t work.

Instead, it became a way to promote my self-published Britpop book to fans of the bands therein. And it’s worked to that end; sales are ticking along nicely (thanks, everyone).

But there’s only so many ways to approach an article about 20-plus-year-old songs, only so many angles to take. Eventually you’ll hit a wall.

This track is my wall.

EmbraceI like ‘Come Back To What You Know’ but only because it has a nice tune. I have nothing deeper to share; no clever intuition about what the lyrics mean, no insights about how it shaped the musical landscape.

The band? Let’s try the band themselves. Well, they came quite late to the Britpop party of course, arriving on the scene just as­– no no, I did that one with Travis a couple of weeks ago.

I like Embrace. Everyone likes Embrace (but we did that with Saint Etienne last week). The problem is, I have nothing to say about Embrace. I never listen to Embrace.

Let me think …

My ex-housemate Gordon was a fan, and played The Good Will Out more often than was strictly necessary when it came out. But I’ve already dragged him in for Ether and the Super Furries. It’s not fair to whore him out once more. Besides, does anyone care what my ex-housemate listened to two decades ago? Does anyone care what I listened to back then? Or now?

Maybe, just maybe, there’s only so much to be said about Britpop.

This next statement may be considered blasphemous in certain quarters, but … was it all that special? Do the many naysayers have a point when they say that it was all hype and little substance, that those of us who look back through Union Jack-tinted spectacles are fooling ourselves about its ongoing relevance?

Take Oasis, for example. Great tunes, shite lyrics. Go on, try reading the words to ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’. Read them, don’t listen to them, the melody distracts you.

It’s gibberish. A soup of unrelated nouns, verbs and adjectives. Even when they’re not spouting incoherent nonsense, they’re singing rubbish. So they’re free to do whatever they choose, are they? They can sing the blues if they want?

Great. So can anyone. There are no laws against it, and it hardly demonstrates cutting-edge rebellion. But Liam, here’s the thing: you’re not singing the blues, you’re singing rock and roll. So you’re not even exercising your proclaimed free will.

Next.

Oh, Elastica. Seriously, what’s all the fuss about? They only squeezed out two albums, the Wire smash-and-grab raid and the other one that no one remembers. Robson and Jerome managed two albums in far less time, and both of theirs went to number one.

And then there’s Pulp.

Everyone loves Pulp, right? Of course they do, with all those clever word plays and knowing lyrics about the working classes and seedy council estate sex and being northern. But it’s not as it they were the first to get excited about that. Different Class was basically ‘Coronation Street: The Musical’.

Let’s be clear: Britpop was largely great because we, the fans, were young back then. To anyone born between 1973 and 1978, it formed the soundtrack to the years when we could drink without fear of the hangover, a time when every night out held the vague possibility of sex. We might think it’s special, that it crosses generational divides with its enduring brilliance but, to this day, I have yet to meet anyone more than five years younger than me who likes, cares about or ever thinks of Britpop.

I still love it, though, despite its flaws. It was still the greatest music the UK has ever produced.

Except maybe the Sixties.

But it takes me back to my youth. And I like that. After all, what’s wrong with a little nostalgia?

Top three Embrace tracks (not straying very far from the curve here, admittedly):

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* This may also have something to do with two under-threes in the house. Definitely more than twice the work of one.

Track 27: What Do I Do Now?, Sleeper

The It Girl, 1995

The Britpop behemoth had an insatiable appetite, gobbling up many a band that claimed they wanted nothing to do with it. But others leapt gladly upon its broad shoulders, eager to see where it might carry them. And no band seemed to enjoy the ride more than Sleeper.

They ticked every Britpop box going. Met at university? Check. Based in and around Camden? Check. One-word band name? Yup. Knowing, Carry-On-esque lyrics about saucy bedroom antics and the trials of romantic life? Most definitely.

Three albums and then finished?

Well, kind of.

SleeperBecause Sleeper are back: they’re playing live and writing new music. Whether it will still count as Britpop depends on your perspective – was it was a stylistic label or a time-bound phenomena? – but it will undoubtedly sound warmly familiar. Some critics dismissed their songs as one-paced, but in the Nineties that pace was perfect for head-nodding, beer-drinking and shoe-shuffling.

They’re not the only ones keeping the Britpop flag flying. Even now, 25 years after it all began, the spirit lives on in weekends and festivals; you can listen to the bona fide classics and forgotten gems on dedicated radio shows; people are sharing memories and memorabilia on Twitter, writing thoughtful blogs about it, making films about it … you can even go on Britpop cruises these days.

And of course there are five-star rated novels about the whole shebang. Yours for a very reasonable £6.99, or £0.99 as an e-book.

To paraphrase clubland’s Brian Potter, Britpop will never die. Not while there are still so many to whom it means so much. There are many who wish it would, of course, suggesting it’s to blame for everything from Brexit* to the decline in musical creativity in the Nineties, and especially Laddism. I never quite understood that last charge; I don’t remember seeing many Lads or Ladettes at Longpigs gigs, and their anthem of choice was the chorus to ‘Born Slippy’ more often than Oasis.

But as long as those of us who love it outnumber them, Britpop will continue to be held up as a good thing. I’d happily trade the fun-loving Britain of ‘96 for the divided, expensive mess we have referendummed ourselves into.** What’s worse, Union Jack guitars and mockney accents, or lies on buses and vitriolic politics? Was having Europe’s envy so much worse than having its disappointment and apathy?

It’s probably unrealistic to expect a new Shed Seven album to bring a divided nation together once more, or an Ocean Colour Scene tour to clamp down on the far right. Even the reformation of the ever-cheerful Sleeper might not fully get us through the next few months of TV debates and no deals and food rationing.

But it certainly can’t hurt to have a bit of decent new music to look forward to.

Top three Sleeper tracks:

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* He concludes that it wasn’t, to be fair. But it was a shameless and unnecessary bit of taunting.

** Admittedly I no longer live there, but it’s no prettier viewed from a distance. Trust me.

 

 

 

Track 22: Headshrinker, Oasis

The Masterplan, 1998

And so, 22 tracks in, we get to Oasis. The best band of the Nineties? Opinion is divided (I’m in the ‘no’ camp). But they were undoubtedly the biggest. Defeat in the Battle of Britpop was nothing more than a minor setback, a blip on their march to total domination. Blur laid a glove, certainly, but there was only ever going to be one winner in the war.

As with anyone or anything that is popular, successful, acclaimed and revered, there are plenty on hand to point out how rubbish they were, their success undeserved. Oasis have variously been described as overhyped, overblown and overproduced; derivate, unoriginal, a pound-shop Beatles tribute act; arrogant, boorish, yobbish, thuggish, and responsible for the seedier aspects of lad culture that swept over the decade. They were, to some extent, all of those things. But that shouldn’t obscure the fact that, at their very best, they were utterly fabulous.

Their later work contains occasional moments of splendour – ‘Fuckin’ In The Bushes’ and Oasis 1995Songbird’ leap buoyantly to mind – but the band’s legacy as music legends was cemented by the three great albums they released during Britpop’s heyday.

Three? Three great albums?

Surely Be Here Now has been officially classified as shite?

It has (although I quite like it), but that is not the album of which I write; no, it’s their fourth album that stands on the shoulders of giants.

Not that one either. That really was crap, the first track aside.

No, I mean The Masterplan: the finest platter of offcuts and offal ever laid down on tape/CD/vinyl.

This collection of B-sides, taken from their early singles, ranks among the upper tier of great Britpop albums. While not conceived, written or recorded as a single piece of work, it contains moments of tender beauty, raucous fury and lyrical splendour. ‘Half The World Away’ is one of Noel’s most touching compositions; the track from which the compilation takes its name achieves the balance of bombast and melody that Be Here Now tried for but missed; and ‘Acquiesce’ is up there with their very best tunes: it stands confidently ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’, ‘Whatever’ and ‘Champagne Supernova’.

Incredibly, another of their greatest songs, ‘Round Are Way’, doesn’t even make the cut for this album of second chances. An astonishing omission: it’s a swinging, swashing, Madness-meets-Slade tribute to the joys of childhood, and with some excellent brass thrown into the mix as well. Anyone who can listen to it and say Oasis had nothing to offer needs to be escorted from the premises. Preferably by Liam after he’s had a few.

Among such company, ‘Headshrinker’ falls a little short. It’s a thrashy three minutes that sounds very B-side, the sort of thing Noel could have churned out while waiting for the kettle to boil. It’s alright, but not very memorable. I only picked as a chapter title because it fitted the narrative of the book. There are couple of other bum notes in there, too. I’ve never liked ‘I Am The Walrus’, their version or the Beatles. It’s a crap song. For such Beatles obsessives, the Gallaghers should have delved a little deeper; ‘Paperback Writer’ or ‘Birthday’ would both have suited their considerable talents well.  But these are rare blips on an otherwise seamless collection.

Could/should they have held these songs back for a fully formed album? Do they regret hiding them away on singles? Not according to Noel, who appreciated their innate value as songs, rather than sales devices.

Oasis 1996He has a point: an Oasis single was a big thing back then, partly because of the unknown extras you might get. Imagine/remember the joy of buying ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ and discovering you’d been gifted ‘Step Out’, ‘Underneath The Sky’ and a cover of ‘Cum On Feel The Noize’ as part of the package. Those overflowing early singles were a major factor behind Oasis becoming the undisputed kings of Britpop.

And they were the kings, despite what the naysayers claim. Even now, it seems; I recently met someone who opined that Oasis were irrelevant. This argument I cannot fathom: it’s like saying breakfast is irrelevant. You can love them, hate them or not mind them either way, but they are relevant for a great many reasons – one of which is their commitment to the importance of the great B-side, of the the single as a mini collection, rather than just song-plus-filler.

As Noel himself has said, “Oasis were a band built on the aura of the b-side”. For that reason alone, everyone should salute them.

Top three Oasis B-sides (with ‘Rockin’ Chair’ and ‘Half The World Away’ just missing the cut):

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Track 21: Sulk, Radiohead

The Bends, 1995

There are two sides, pretty fiercely entrenched, sides to the debate around music streaming. For the fans, it makes music less expensive and more accessible; it is hugely convenient, meeting the modern expectation of having everything available absolutely right now. It can also help small or new acts to build a following online, when previously that usually required a label or wealth (or both).

Yet of course musicians deserve to be rewarded for their talents, and the payments they get are undoubtedly very low (although there are ideas out there to change that). And it has changed how we listen to music: it’s too easy these days to skip through songs, music as yet another online distraction, rather than something deserving of attention.

Yet there is something else we have lost in the rush for instant gratification: the album as an event. As I understand it, these days the done thing is to ‘drop’ an album, without any preceding hype, to catch the world off guard and get your name trending on Twitter and Instagram.

But that doesn’t allow any time for the tension to build up, the whispers to start, friends to boast about hearing new tracks late on Radio 1, before you. It doesn’t allow time for any of that most delicious of sensations: expectation.

Radiohead 1995Radiohead’s OK Computer was such as an event. Released in 1997, it was the album of my first year at university (most students had grown out of Oasis by then). No one knew quite what to expect, which only added to the sense of anticipation. All we’d been given as a taster was the curious, takes-a-few-listens weirdness of ‘Paranoid Android’, the Kraftwerk-does-Bohemian-Rhapsody first single.

The chatter in the campus bars and halls intensified as the June launch date approached. I was quite literally desperate to hear it. When the day arrived, I trotted down to Record Collector in Broomhill to get my copy, then jogged back to halls for that long-awaited first listen. Kettle on, pillows plumped, lie back. And listen.

What the fuck is this?

The scratched bassline intro to ‘Airbag’ makes for an unconventional start, compounded by someone kicking over a drumkit 15 seconds in. It’s OK, albeit a slightly caustic start, considering the last we heard from them was the haunting ‘Street Spirit’. I’m prepared for the madness of ‘Paranoid Android’, and tracks three to six sound more recognisably Radiohead, even if they do slowly drag me down into that cave of melancholy usually only reached via the worst of hangovers.

As I begin to wonder what the point of life is anymore and whether I should just hand myself in to these Karma Police, I am kicked back into reality by the frankly bizarre interjection of ‘Fitter Happier’. What is this? Who is singing/speaking/droning it? A Stormtrooper? Stephen Hawking? Has someone fucked up at the CD pressing factory?

Before I’ve had time to work it all out, though, I am smacked in the side of the head by ‘Electioneering’. The strangled-ghost vocals on ‘Climbing Up The Walls’ do little to soothe my now-fragile, confused mental state, and it is only the glockenspieled melody of ‘No Surprises’ that returns my pulse to somewhere near normal, as the album winds itself down with its closing balm of a three-piece suite.

I lie back, feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, elated and confused. Then play it again.

Let’s face it, you don’t get all that when Ed Sheeran uploads his latest effort to Spotify.

Time heals, and I love the album now. Adore it. And partly because it works as a whole, each individual track an integral part. ‘Electioneering’ remains an assault on the ears, but the album wouldn’t work without it: ‘Lucky’ and ‘The Tourist’ would have no raw wounds to bind. It is rightfully acclaimed by each and every one, not just as one of the best albums of the Nineties, but of all time.

And yet … and yet ….

I still prefer The Bends. It’s more melodic, more upbeat (although OK Computer sets a phenomenally low bar in this respect) and, ultimately, it’s an easier listen. ‘Street Spirit’ is glorious. ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ and ‘(Nice Dream)’ are both compellingly beautiful. And ‘Sulk’ is a superb, soaring anthem, a song that would be most band’s crowning achievement, yet sneaks in as track 11 for Radiohead.

In fact, not only do I prefer The Bends, I think it’s a better album than OK Computer.

I would never have dared suggest such heresy in the student pubs of 1990s Sheffield, though.

Top three Radiohead tracks (and it was exceptionally hard to narrow it down to three):

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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 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 18: Rocks, Primal Scream

Give Out But Don’t Give Up, 1994

Rocks.

A word with an impressive musical legacy. AC/DC had whiskey on them. Mick Jagger could only get his off when dreaming or sleeping. J-Lo advised us not to be fooled by hers, while both Neil Diamond and The Darkness made love on them. The latter with no ice.

The singular has an even more colourful backstory. David Essex asked us to rock on, Timberlake instructed us to rock our bodies, the Clash suggested we did it to (possibly at) the Casbah. Jacko wanted to rock with us, while Queen generously offered to do the heavy lifting. There are no doubt hundreds more, and that’s before we even start on rocking, rock n’ roll, Rockaway Beach, Rockin’ Chair, the Rock Steady Crew

It’s almost as if the music fraternity have identified a short, highly malleable term and bandied it about to avoid having to think of more original and meaningful lyrics. And we let them get away with it, fools that we are.

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Rock Lobster, there’s another one. Although I have an incurable dislike of the B-52s.

Primal Scream’s demands were clear: to get our rocks off. They even gave clear instructions as to what to do next (shake ‘em) and where the procedure should take place (down town). And they expressed all of this in one of the least complicated melodies ever composed, just two notes, on repeat. Yet sometimes the genius is the simplicity: it’s one of the most memorable choruses of the nineties, maybe of all time. Sing the first part to anyone in the street, and I predict at least three-quarters will sing the rest back to you, albeit it with a mildly surprised expression.

Perhaps it’s so simple because Primal Scream had exhausted themselves writing the verses. It’s not every tune that manages to crowbar analysis of crime, prostitution, addiction, economics, STDs, voyeurism, alcoholism and religion into little more than three and a half minutes.

Crocodile Rock. How did I forget that one?

As I’ve mentioned before, there was so damn much fantastic music around in the Nineties that it was hard to keep on top of it all, and some inevitably slipped by. Primal Scream were one such band for me. I always liked what I heard, kept promising myself I would delve a little deeper, but time and money were against me. I never even owned Screamadelica, which was a fixture on most CD racks two decades ago.

I did see them live, though, at T in the Park in 2002. They came on before Oasis and to say they blew them out of the water would be like saying Luke left a scratch or two on the Death Star. They were sensational; any band would have struggled to follow them.

Right, that’s it for this week. I have a new baby to change and a book to promote.

Let’s get the rock out of here.

Top three Primal Scream tracks (with the caveat I don’t know their back catalogue all that well – feel free to suggest others):

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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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Book review: She’s Electric – A Britpop Love Story… sort of

Nick Amies, 2013

There are surprisingly few Britpop-themed novels. There are books – everything from autobiographies to in-depth analyses to hatchet jobs – but not many novels. Given the movement’s cultural dominance of the 1990s and its enduring popularity and significance, this seems a missed opportunity.

Thankfully, the few (currently) out there includes She’s Electric. A rich seam of Nineties nostalgia runs through this book’s core, capturing everything that made the era so memorable: the drugs, the clothes, the football, the sex, the drink. Despite the Oasis-nodding title, this is a novel about far more than music.

The story follows the lives of four lads who meet in at university, share the early days of adulthood then go their separate ways. Reunited for a cocaine-and-lager-fuelled weekend, they set about recreating the hedonism of their youth – with mixed results. At first, the premise may seem a little worn – four blokes talking about drugs and music over pints – but it works extremely well because it’s written with a keen eye for, and understanding of, the nuances that make up the young British male.

In fact, while the blurb might suggests this is a typical boy-chases-girl story, it is the friendships between the four lead characters that provide the main focus. Seen through the eyes of Danny, the book quickly reveals their characters (another strong point is how it makes four essentially similar men quite distinct from each other) then more gradually reveals the back stories that made them who they are. The pace is unhurried, so by the time we learn, for instance, what makes Scotsman McKinley the troublemaker he is, we care enough to sympathise.

In its early chapters, the writing style reminded me of Trainspotting and the early Irvine Welsh canon (i.e. before he made Begbie a fucking sculptor). At times shocking, consistently vulgar, and with dialogue peppered with swearwords, it’s not a book for sensitive souls. And some of the scenes in the book – a DIY porno, the mocking of the gang’s gay friends, the often dismissive descriptions of women – seem sharply out of step with the sexual politics of today. But this is a Nineties novel. Things were very different back then, the heyday of FHM and Loaded, and there’s no point pretending otherwise. These young men wear their New Lad badges proudly on the sleeves of their Ben Sherman shirts.

I learnt about this book via the thriving Britpop Twitter community, and read it partly as research for my own novel. The first few pages were turned with trepidation, fearing my own efforts would mimic it too closely – fears not assuaged by the use of Britpop tracks as chapter titles (OK, it probably wasn’t my most original idea).

But I needn’t have worried: this is a very different book. It delves into the seedier, E- and coke-laced corners of nineties Britain and is the perfect guide to the era for those who want to find out what the fuss was about, or relive their own decadent youth. It’s equally worth the time of those seeking a considered, often delicate, exploration of the complexities of male companionship. And if you simply want a highly entertaining read with a cracking soundtrack, well, it works for that too.

Nick is also working on a film of the novel; you can find out more, and support the project, here.

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Photo from Pixabay

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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