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.

Track 26: Goldfinger, Ash

1977, 1996

I had a friend in Sheffield.

Mike and I had much in common. We both liked beer. We both liked football. That’s usually enough for two 18-year-old males to bond.

Mike was a one-paced-but-gritty central midfielder for my football team, the hilariously titled David Mellor’s Football Task Force. Think Steve Stone, or Mark Noble in today’s money. And he was a reliable drinking companion for Monday nights glued to the early days of the Premier League, on its new home of Sky TV.

More nobly, Mike accompanied me on cold, underwhelming trips to watch our respective football teams play in the small towns around Sheffield. If Swindon were away at Chesterfield, I knew who to call. And to return the favour, I would begrudgingly tag along whenever Palace were playing nearby.

barnsley-143463_1280It was on the way back from an incident-of-any-kind-free 0-0 draw at Barnsley on a dull grey November day (I am yet to be convinced Barnsley has any other type of day) when Mike shared a pearl of wisdom that I cherish to this day.

“We’re probably not going to keep in touch after university” he said, with curmudgeonly insight that defied his 18 years, “but I’ll always give you a thought when Swindon are mentioned on Final Score.”

Mike, you see, kept a mental list of people – friends, associates, randoms – who he associated with one club. Quickly I realised I had my own list, which persists to this day. For Aston Villa, it’s Andy, my friend Julia’s boyfriend (now husband: he even checked the Villa score between the speeches at their wedding). Scunthorpe are Christopher Davis, the son of my dad’s church warden; he’d never been there, he just picked them just to be different. Stoke City are Matthew Cubley, who turned up one day at my primary school without warning and left six months later. His was the first Northern accent any of us in darkest Wiltshire had ever heard, meaning we treated him with Elephant man-eqsue curiosity for the first few weeks.

It also works for bands. If it’s the Super Furries, I think of former housemate Gordon. Should Ben Folds Five make a rare appearance, then it’s Charlotte. With the Doors, I think of my brother. And change the radio station.

And if it’s Ash – see, we always get there eventually – then I think of Mike. Even before we got to football, we talked music. He revealed his love of Ash on the first night we met. And, as we sat around our one-pound pints in the hall bar, I drunkenly shared my own Britpop secret with him.

I didn’t like Ash.

The music, that was fine. Great, actually. They even pulled off that rare trick of having album tracks better/as good as the singles.

No, it was the mocking, goading, taunting title of their (officially) debut album which grated.

1977.

The year Tim Wheeler was born. Also the year I was born.

And that’s what hurt. He may as well have called it ‘I’m not even 20 and I wrote this: what the feck have you done with your miserable life, eh? EH?’. Wheeler might claim it’s a Star Wars reference, but we all knew that’s what he meant.

Time heals. I’ve mellowed now. I’m seeing Ash in Berlin in a couple of weeks and will look them in the eye as an equal. For I too have now achieved. Has Tim Wheeler written a book that reached #2 in Amazon’s bestselling snooker-related titles? No, he has not. Not according to Wikipedia, anyway.

So I can listen now to 1977, revel in its glorious energy, my cheeks no longer burning with shame and jealousy and fury. I’ve even smoked a Henri Winterman cigar. Without coughing.

The pints will cost considerably more than one pound, but I will raise a couple of them to Mike. Who – just as he predicted – I haven’t seen or heard from since university.

Top three Ash songs:

Ash 1997

Track 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 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: