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 28. Tied To The 90s, Travis

Good Feeling, 1997

It was all beginning to unravel by the time Travis showed up.

Just before Travis released their debut album in 1997, Be Here Now had blown Britpop’s foundations away, and not in a good way. Two years later, when they presented The Man Who to us, they did so amid the ruins of the empire, crows picking at the bodies of those who had failed to escape in time, as the rest of us peeked around the corner of the millennium to see what might be heading our way.

Did Travis know what was happening? The gentle Britpop-mocking lyrics of ‘Slide Show’ suggest they quite possibly did. Indeed their songs would have nestled snugly in among the slower, wittier side of Britpop. Instead, they were late to the party, pottering in cheerily with two four-packs of lager just as everyone else was thinking only of sleep and getting a kebab to try and suppress the vomit from rising.

So late, in fact, that many associate them more readily with what followed the morning after: Stereophonics, Coldplay, Starsailor and Keane.*

Toploader too. The musical equivalent of coming around to find a gatecrasher has shat in your parent’s bed and smashed up your CD collection. I’d have taken the complete meltdown of western civilisation promised by the Millennium Bug if it had spared us ‘Dancing In The Moonlight’.

Yet to mark Travis as guilty by association with Britpop’s mediocre followers would be to overlook the excellence of their earliest works. The Man Who is familiar to millions, its big singles having squatted in our radios for much of 1999, even though the best tracks are the previously mentioned ‘Slide Show’ and little-played ‘The Fear’.

TravisBut it’s Good Feeling where the real gems lie. ‘Happy’ is a joyous little burst of cheerfulness, ‘Tied To The 90s’ managed to pre-empt what a lot of us would soon be feeling, while ‘U16 Girls’ marks another notch in rock’s proud catalogue of songs about paedophilic near-misses (see also Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, Johnny Burnette, Neil Sedaka, even the sacred Beatles. A worryingly popular theme for pop music, to be honest).

Where do we place Travis, then? Exalt them a worthy encore to Britpop, the methadone to soothe us through the post-addiction struggle? Or charge them with the softening of our rock, their over-sensitive whines about driftwood and why it’s always raining seeping into the fissures of the nation and drowning out the music of northern council estates and London’s grimier quarters, making us ask ourselves repeatedly why life is so unfair and I don’t like your opinion and now we’re all no-platforming snowflakes who cannot abide listening to any views we don’t like.

Are Travis responsible for this soft-centred, self-obsessed, entitled, obese and over-indulged nation we’ve become? Did they really read Britpop’s last rites, and close the curtain on this country’s finest five years of music? It’s a undoubtedly a harsh accusation.

But still better than being held responsible for Toploader.

Top three Travis tracks

* Note: I have seen both Coldplay and Keane live and they were both excellent. And I like ‘Everybody’s Changing’ as long as I don’t hear it too often. Viva La Vida too. But some of their later albums are truly horrific, so the charges stand.

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