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 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.

Gig review: The Vaccines

Festsaal, Berlin, 26 October

It has taken me nearly a decade to see the Vaccines for a second time. An unwelcomely long wait; that first time, in a cramped, clammy, crowded underground bar on Hamburg’s ‘mile of sin’, they blew me away with their energy, vim and talent. So much so that nothing – not my cold, my age, or my five-week-old baby – were going to stop me from getting to this gig.

IMG_2263After the support trooped off – keep a beady eye out for the excellent whenyoung, especially the brilliantly coiffured drummer – on they came. The first thing that strikes is that they have, not unreasonably, got older. The straplings of the Reeperbahn have filled out, swaggered up, even grown in number.

The second, though, is the curious stage dynamic. While three of them dive straight into full-on rock bluster, bassist Árni Árnason and keyboardist Timothy Lanham more closely resemble people waiting patiently for a library to open, all planted feet and middle-distance stairs. Oddly, the imbalance works; their reticence leaves room for their more energetic bandmates to do their stuff. And while the supremely gifted lead guitarist Freddie Cowan, dressed in tight-white T-shirt and jeans, would splice seamlessly into any rock band from any era, it’s inevitably singer Justin Hayward-Young who draws the eye.IMG_2265

A little too much on occasion. There’s an overdose of knowing points into the crowd, and on occasion his stage posturing veers dangerously close to school musical (over)acting – although credit is due to anyone who tries to swallow a whole mic live on stage. And these are minor niggles; overall, he’s the perfect frontman, with the voice to match the strutting.

And songs this good demand a little strut. The Vaccines don’t hang about, racing hyperactively through the set, their surfer-tinged and Joe Meek-dappled early hits expertly interspersed with tracks from the new album, with ‘Your Love Is My Favourite Band‘ standing out. Old and new dovetail neatly, and they’ve blended in nice touches of country rock, even a little Eighties disco – foretold by their stage entrance, all glitterballs and ‘Dancing Queen’ (reclaiming that song for a merciful nation from May’s awkward clutches).

Yet it is the anthemic old favourites that reveal the band at their best. ‘Wetsuit’, ‘Post Break-up Sex’ and ‘If You Wanna’ sound especially glorious, meshing brilliant guitar/drums work with memorable lyrics about adolescent insecurities and sexual frustrations that – allow me to reach for my Britpop crowbar briefly – are up there with the best of Pulp. So soaring are they that even the bassist is jiggling away by the end.

After that Hamburg gig, the Vaccines became my favourite band to have come around after I officially got old. By which I mean, when I stopped going to gigs simply because they’re gigs; I now only venture out for bands I know I’m going to like.

I knew I was going to enjoy the Vaccines, and they didn’t get close to disappointing. They even omitted ‘Wolf Pack’, meaning I got to moan on the way home about how they hadn’t played my favourite song, thus establishing my status as a long-term fan.

All in all, a perfect night out.

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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 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 6: Do You Remember The First Time?, Pulp

His ‘n’ Hers, 1994

Do you remember the first time you heard Pulp?

Bangor, 1994. My Dad had driven us to that remote corner of Wales to visit my older brother, Mike, who was studying English there (or so he told us). We travelled along the long and winding roads that run through the country, no doubt engaged in a fairly one-way conversation about the ongoing fortunes of Swindon Town, held over a musical backdrop of Eighties electro-pop, my pre-Britpop staple.

Many hours later, we arrived at his student house. We rang the bell. We went in.

I’d never seen anything like it. A thick, all-consuming layer of smoke gripped the building, hanging in yellow, eye-level clouds that twisted and swirled as you walked through them. The hallway was barely navigable, overrun by piles of magazines and empty bottles – of beer, whisky, vodka, anything that had a by-volume value written on it – that engulfed it like a tidal wave. Father and brotherpicked their way through to the kitchen, but I was neither brave nor nimble enough to follow, perhaps also fearing what horrors lay within. Instead, I found myself irresistibly drawn to the room on my right. Nervous yet excited at what I might find, I pushed open the door, blinking as a fresh wave of fumes scratched at my eyes. When it passed, I peered inside.

Mysterious figures, all clad in various shades of black, were splayed across the furniture. Whatever ashtrays there might have been were lost beneath the mounds of stubs, and an army of dirty, cracked mugs – it must have been thousands strong – was staking its claim to the remaining floor space. It looked like the kind of place Withnail and Marwood would inhabit, if they’d decided to really let themselves go. I loved it instantly; this was what not-living-at-home must look like. And, from the stereo in the corner, came sounds I hadn’t heard before, all urgent, whispered lyrics and keyboard glissandos.

‘Who’s that?’ I asked the nearest black-clad figure.

Pulp 1996‘Ah, now that’s Pulp,’ came the cheery reply from the slouched personage I would soon come to know as Justin. He rummaged on the floor beside him, then leant over to hand me the cassette case. As I opened it and began reading the sleeve, the stereo clunked over and the tape began again.

“The trouble with your brother, he’s always sleeping with your mother…”

What was this wonderful filth? These were lyrics the likes of which I’d not heard before. Erasure never sang about intergenerational incest, I knew that much. I listened intently as the track played through again, before Dad, evidently keen to escape before he contracted something, broke the spell by insisting we all went for a walk.

When my brother was next back home, I snuck into his room when he was out to find more from this mysterious, intriguing new band. They swiftly became my namedrop band in the common room, the one I claimed to be into to scramble together just a humble bundle of kudos among my peers.

Didn’t work. And in less than a year, the sense of mystery had dissipated. Pulp were huge. The released Different Class and Jarvis was the talk of the tabloids after mooning Jacko. Stardom was theirs, even if they never seemed completely comfortable with it.

They got even bigger during 1996, when I myself was a student in their home city. Their headlining of the V Festival in 1996 remains the finest live performance I’ve seen. But first and foremost they will always be the band to soundtrack days spent in grimy student houses in small university towns where it’s almost certainly raining. It’s where they fit best.

Even now, whenever I listen to them, I still get that faint taste of stale ash.

Mike’s top three Pulp songs:

Justin’s top three Pulp songs:

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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:

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.