The Divine Comedy – Love What You Do

Despite being well into my twenties, by 2001 I had still not yet learned to drive. This meant that when I decided sometime in March that it would be a good idea to buy a new hi-fi from somewhere along Tottenham Court Road, it would need to be one I could comfortably get into a taxi with, then a train, and then another taxi before getting home for that all-important unboxing ceremony.

It also meant relying on my housemate for a lift to work. Now, as it happened, my housemate and I did not have a lot in common musically speaking. He was more Slinky, I was more Club X. Badly lacking common ground, and often too miserable to contemplate early morning small-talk, we’d sit with the radio providing a source of background distraction. For six months, on and off, he’d drive and I’d demist and check for traffic through any areas of windscreen that offered a tantalising view of the road ahead if it was still winter, or sit in silent anticipation of the joy of the day ahead when the weather was more clement. After six months our landlord said he was selling up, kicked us out, then changed his mind and let the property to someone else. I wouldn’t have minded so much if he hadn’t tried to also charge us for the gardening that he’d sent his wife over to do, under discreet cover.

In all this time, through all these journeys to work, to home, back to work again, into town… I can only remember two songs that played on the radio. There must have been others – Sara Cox can’t have talked us in to the mothership every morning, and I’m fairly certain we weren’t listening to the Today programme – but only two seemed to prompt any combined response. One was “Love What You Do” by The Divine Comedy; the other was, um, “It Wasn’t Me” by Shaggy.

Curiously, both were released on the same day. Could it be that we never actually spoke to each other except on this one occasion when Neil Hannon followed Shaggy? Did we sing like idiots to Shaggy before a great divide opened up between us when the man behind the wheel expressed his dislike of “Love What You Do” and then return to bored silence?

“It Wasn’t Me” went straight in at number one, displacing Atomic Kitten in the process, while “Love What You Do” perched down at #26, looking up in jealousy at the likes of Limp Bizkit. It might have seemed a disappointing position for the lead single to the appropriately titled Regeneration but then “Bad Ambassador” and “Perfect Lovesong” trumped it, only managing #34 and #42 respectively. As regenerations go, it felt less David Tennant, more Sylvester McCoy.

Except really it was Christopher Eccleston. Regeneration was The Divine Comedy jettisoning The Brunel Ensemble, and casting aside the baroque, ornate pop plus strings that had threatened to tip into self-parody on Fin de Siecle. It was a new, lean, mean Neil Hannon. He wore Jeans and a jacket and that sort of thing. His hair was a bit long in some of the press shots. There were some almost loud guitars at times, even if they were still deployed in the pursuit of melody. Doubtless there was a decent budget thrown at it, too. A CD called Re:Regeneration was given away free with The Independent on Sunday newspaper, featuring versions of songs from the album together with a few earlier songs that people might know a bit.

The week Love What You Do was released, Dido was number one in the album charts with No Angel, which went on to become the year’s biggest selling album, at just under 2 million sales. The biggest selling single of the year? That would be “It Wasn’t Me”, by Shaggy.

“Love What You Do” sounded bloody good on my new hi-fi, though.

Coldplay – Yellow

I already know what you’re thinking, and you can just stop right there, and unthink it. I haven’t gone crazy, I haven’t sold out, and I haven’t just lost a drunken bet.

It’s the summer of the year 2000, and I’m walking down a quiet street in a small town in the South of England. As I pass by a hairdresser’s I can hear, in the tinny shop-radio style, what I know to be a new single by a potentially exciting band. Not that I can really tell from this distance and with this sound quality, but there’s a vulnerability to the singer’s voice, and some lovely interplay with the lead guitar when they both move high in the register on the line “your skin, oh yeah your skin and bones”. It doesn’t feel like an obviously big hit; the dissonance in guitar right from the start of the track ought to put some people off. At the same time, I’m kind of hoping it does well.

On 2th July 2000, “Yellow” by Coldplay enters the singles chart at #4. It’s the second single from their debut album Parachutes, and their first Top 5 hit. Quirkily, it’s only the third highest new entry of the week, behind Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady”, which was straight in at #1, and “Gotta Tell You” by Samantha Mumba, in at two. The previous week’s number one, “Spinning Around” by Kylie Minogue, drops to number three. In all the top 20 features nine new entries, including “Good Thing Going” by Eastenders actor Sid Own at #14. What times we lived in.

Looking back through the prism of Coldplay hatred and anger that greets their every move these days it’s hard to separate the casual abuse from actually considering that they might not be completely without merit. Believe me, I’ve been there, done that, bought the “I hate Coldplay t-shirt” and wanted to hit people for daring to suggest that the indie I’ve been telling them I’m into all these years is the indie they think they hear when they listen to A Rush of Blood to the Head. Protesting the difference, it’s hard not to sometimes feel like Basil Fawlty explaining to the assembled guests that they’ll have the fire drill when he rings the fire bell.

Well, how were we supposed to know that wasn’t the fire bell?
Because it doesn’t sound like the fire bell!
It did!
It didn’t!
It did!
No, it didn’t!
The fire bell’s a different…it’s a semi-tone higher!
A semi-tone?
At least!

In other words, totally different. Not that same at all. AT ALL.

Particularly memorable is the aftermath of a BBC 6 Music vote to find the 100 Greatest Hits of the channel’s lifetime. Someone – an outrage! – allowed a Coldplay song into the shortlist, someone else – a gleeful representative of the band – noticed, and a global army of Coldplay fans was mobilised until the world’s least surprising poll-winner was announced:

Cue the outrage: “Indie for ABBA fans”, “Let’s never talk of this again”, “Hang your heads in shame, 6Music listeners”, “6music listeners did not vote Coldplay no.1. can we all be clear on that? *switches radio off*”.

And, referencing the important role that Coldplay-haters played in saving the station when it was threatened with closure in 2010:

I no more need to justify to Mr Fifty Quid my dislike for all the humdrum Coldplay singles in the world any more than I have to justify to my music snob friends and acquaintances why I think “Where’s The Love” by Hanson is a giddy delight. There are no guilty pleasures: only pleasures.

And “Yellow” is one of them.

Blur – Tender

Blur’s discography is full of more diverse riches than you might expect from the band that won the Britpop race to the bottom when their execrable “Country House” sold more copies than the even more execrable “Roll With It” by Oasis. From the design-by-committee debut Leisure and Modern Life is Rubbish with its Kinksian view of the world, through to the career-closing trio of Blur, 13 and Think Tank, they’ve exhibited a broad sweep of styles and attitudes.

Don’t judge them too harshly by that little Britpop period in the middle when Damon Albarn was tossing out characters left right and center, and Phil Daniels and Keith Allen were bringing the comedy. Even in those times, the deeper, darker, more introspective cuts were always the most revealing and the most rewarding: “This is a Low” from Parklife allowed Albarn to indulge his cracked world-worn protagonist idiom while giving Graham Coxon room to unleash the awesome storm of a guitar solo; “The Universal” from The Great Escape used brass for melodrama where other tracks on the same album had more of the big top circus entertainment feel. In 2014 it’s hard to remember a time when “The Universal” didn’t give you a pavlovian response involving little planets and British Gas, but once it was just a beautiful song.

No band could produce three Parklifes. No band that contained real, thinking, considered musicians and Alex James, anyway. Somehow, though, Blur managed to consciously reject the notion and still return with a self-titled album that gave them another number one single with “Beetlebum”, and, in “Song 2”, the anti-anthem anthem that would come to be their true defining moment. They followed Blur with 13 and retreated even further from the larky notions of the mid-90s. “No Distance Left to Run” was the ballad of a broken man, distortion, lo-fi and feedback dominated, and only the semi-jaunty “Coffee and TV” acknowledged those happy-go-lucky days of yore. But its vocal was delivered by Coxon, who also wrote the song, so even this one was keen to sever ties with its past.

“Tender” was the album’s lead single and opening track. Co-written and co-sung by Coxon and Albarn with backing vocals from the London Community Gospel Choir, it couldn’t have felt much less Blur. It was a sort of anti-“Song 2”, which makes it an anti-anti-anthem, and is exactly as beautiful and precious as that doesn’t sound.

Come on come on come on
Get through it
Come on come on come on
Love’s the greatest thing
That we have.

Air – La Femme D’Argent

Maybe it’s to do with the cosmopolitan hi-falutin’ city lifestyle I was enjoying at the time, but the late 1990s seem to be a time of endless balsamic vinegar drizzles, piles of badly cooked polenta, and Gary Rhodes’ unbeatable bread and butter pudding. And if you got tired of dining out on expense accounts you could bring the experience home by hosting a dinner party: simply invite your most tolerable acquaintances over, pray they bring a bottle of something decent, and curate an evening’s listening from the most inoffensive new albums in your carousel.

But what to select to impress in 1998? Something cool, yet sophisticated, of course. Something recognisable, but not too populist. A year later and you could walk any given North London street and expect to hear the sounds of Moby‘s Play doing for Alan Lomax’s field recordings what Paul Simon had done for African musicians, but back in 1998 your go-to artists could have been French duo Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel, otherwise known as Air.

In 1997, Air released their debut EP Premiers Symptômes. A year later they followed it with Moon Safari, and for a brief while there was nothing cooler than this electronic space-pop. It was at once mystical and European, the way Kraftwerk appeared to be, but also universal – not to mention Universal. Predating and probably partly responsible for the subsequent chill-out years of the new millennium, Moon Safari brought insouciance and exuded a kind of coolness that it somehow drew from a sonic template that would normally be enjoyed with a knowing arch of the eyebrows. It features a song called “Sexy Boy” that ought to be laughable, but which is magnificent.

The first track on Moon Safari, though, is the seven-minute instrumental La Femme D’Argent. You can’t love me ironically, it seems to say, with its funky disco basslines and thoroughly un-modern synthesiser sounds, because I am already too ironic.

Belle & Sebastian – Lazy Line Painter Jane

Before hipster (in its most recent incarnation) was a thing, there was fey. And it was OK. It was perfectly fine to wear a cardigan and enjoy harmless indie-pop. It was not only fine, but rather splendid in fact to be a member of the Sinister mailing list, set up in 1997 by and for Belle & Sebastian fans, and which allowed a free flow of their most endearing and innocent musings through bedrooms up and down the land. Or in my case, the office’s “internet computer”. That’s right, the computer that was connected to the internet. The one we could use to check our emails if it was free. Because, for a while, there was only one. What a world we lived in. I probably still used phonecards (I definitely still used phonecards), and cashback was exciting enough that you might ask for it even when you didn’t need any.

Belle & Sebastian released a hat-trick of superb EPs in 1997, starting with Dog On Wheels, and finishing with 3.. 6.. 9 Seconds of Light. Sandwiched between them was Lazy Line Painter Jane, which was released in July, and very nearly broke the Top 40, peaking at #41.

Having already released two albums the previous year – the limited release Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister – and with another one on the way the following year this was a time in which the Glasgow band seemed to have an unlimited supply of sweet tales to tell and gentle melodies with which to tell them. 1997’s EPs effectively amounted to a whole album between them, and together they amounted to the first disc of the 2005 compilation Push Barman to Open Old Wounds.

There’s nary a filler track to be found, and although the opening track on each EP is the obvious picks, there are gems to be found throughout, such as a different version of “The State I am In” from the one to be found on Tigermilk, and the glorious runaway train that is “Le Pastie de la Bourgeoisie”.

“Lazy Line Painter Jane” itself is undoubtedly the pick of the songs. Beefier than “Dog on Wheels”, it features a glorious guest vocal from Monica Queen, swirling organs, guitars turned up, handclaps, and a noise and energy that Belle & Sebastian had kept mostly hidden up to this point. As it gathers steam, the force is irresistible, culminating in an outro that is completely owned by an organ seemingly played by an uncredited crazed madman who wandered into the church where the song was being recorded and felt like hammering away for a few frenzied minutes.

Suede – Picnic by the Motorway

“Picnic By The Motorway” is not one of the poppy, “attractive in an obvious sort of way” songs on Coming Up. It’s probably the least new-Suede song on the album. And yet it was one of the first songs that fledgling guitarist and Bernard Butler replacement / look-alike Richard Oakes wrote with Brett Anderson.

It’s a signpost pointing both ways: to the old mystical Suede, and the new potential Suede. Confusingly, Anderson provided the new, while the backwards-looking part came from Oakes. Perhaps being the new Bernard Butler wasn’t such a bad dream after all, or perhaps that was just what being the guitarist in Suede did to you.

There’s an unreal quality to the verse, the delayed echo on Anderson’s vocal for the first verse sounds like it’s been fed back in on itself over and over again before finally emerging, distorted to the point of wordlessness. The acoustic guitar wobbles hesitantly. Suddenly a chorus rushes in. “Hey! Such a lovely day.” In isolation it sounds heavenly, but the song already inhabits a world where “there’s a gap in the fence down by the nature reserve”. This is no rural idyll, the motorway is not a fast track to freedom or a concrete dream. It’s something to be walked over, looked down on. It’s purely for voyeurism, not voyages.

I’m so sorry to hear the news today,
Don’t you worry,
There’s been a speeding disaster so we’ll go to the motorway,
I’m so sorry to hear about the scene,
Don’t you worry,
Just put on your trainers and get out of it with me,

Tindersticks – Tiny Tears

Tindersticks weren’t completely new to me when I chanced upon their second album at a listening post of one of those high street music retailers who have probably since gone bust: I knew “Marbles” from an NME Singles of the Week compilation CD, and “Snowy in F# Minor” from a cassette given away with Melody Maker the previous August. I stepped up to the listening station and clasped the headphones around my ears; the opening bars of “El Diablo En El Ojo” made their mournful way into my soul. It felt like those other tracks had been planted in front of me for a reason, and this moment was that reason.

I’ve never fallen as hard or as fast for a band like I did in that moment. There’s a magic in the sound that’s hard to contain in words. Dickon Hinchcliffe’s hushed vocals sometimes joined by the even more hushed Stuart Staples, the strum of an acoustic guitar, and a low rumble that will gradually become a cacophonous wail of strings. When it’s all over you have a couple of seconds to let it sink in before the no less intriguing “A Night In” sets the ball of mystery rolling in another direction. This time Staples takes his usual lead vocal role, and the strings dance around him, playing flighty counterpoint to his baritone. This is very much the template that defines much of Tindersticks‘ second self-titled album: “No More Affairs”, “Mistakes” and “She’s Gone” all tread a similar path of love, loss, regret and broken-heartedness. “Talk To Me” – like “El Diablo En El Ojo” – adds chaos to the recipe, climaxing frantically.

The crowning moment of this orchestral feast is “Tiny Tears”. Strings have seldom wept so sweetly, or contrasted so dramatically as here with Staples’ gravel-tones and the warbling organ.

How can you hurt someone so much, you’re supposed to care for
Someone you said you’d always be there for
But when that water breaks you know you’re gonna cry, cry
When those tears start rolling you’ll be back

tindersticks120417

On Friday 28th April 1995, having paid the princely sum of seven pounds for the privilege, I saw Tindersticks play live for the first time, with support coming from indie-pop legends The Pastels. I’ve seen them play many times in many locations since – ranging from the ICA to the Royal Albert Hall and Somerset House, acoustic sets to full orchestral productions. Each, in its own way, has been special, but as the saying goes you never forget your first time, and on this occasion there was magic in the air. Standing, rapt, eyes closed amid the smoke and “Patchwork”, I had never felt anything quite like it. This was the true power of live music, what music should always strive for: to take the listener somewhere, anywhere, and give them something, whatever they wish for. Not to make them dance, or sing, or jump, necessarily, but to just fall in in love in their own way, with no means or inclination to resist.

Oasis – Supersonic

Back in April 2014 the BBC ran a series of shows and promotions under the banner title “20 years of Britpop”. The logic behind the choice of time and place for the start of that 20 year period is fuzzy and vague, but they mention the death of Kurt Cobain (5 April 1994) and the release of Parklife (25 April 1994) as touchpoints.

There’s also a claim that Stuart Maconie coined the term Britpop, a claim that will come as news to John Robb, who runs www.louderthanwar.co.uk and who has said that he first used the term in the late ’80s while discussing the “madchester” scene. John Harris doesn’t offer anything as vulgar as an exact date in his book “The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the demise of English rock”, but he does tie the term’s mainstream acceptance with the rise, in 1994-5, of Blur, a band who had come a long way in a short time: from windy Primrose Hill to Westminster, to be precise.

Blur - ParklifeLike my Mum always used to say, though, it doesn’t matter who started it. And I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s touching to commemorate the anniversary of the death of a musician by scheduling two weeks of programming in celebration of the scene that his music was often placed in direct opposition to. What we do know is that between the death of Cobain and the birth of Parklife, a new band from Manchester burst onto the scene. Their rivalry with Blur (fabricated or no) would do as much as anything to shape the public perception of Britpop.

“Supersonic”, the debut single by Oasis, was released on 11 April 1994. It went into the charts at #31, three places below “Standing Outside the Fire” by Garth Brooks and four behind “Why Me?” by pop titans PJ & Duncan, both of which were also new entries that week. It was also a week that saw the artist then known as the artist formerly known as Prince at number one (I think. He’s listed as “Symbol” on the Official Charts web site at this point): other than Terrorvision at 24 with “Oblivion”, there was a general dearth of British guitar bands in the chart.

The singles chart wasn’t entirely forbidden ground in 1994: Suede had reached #3 in February with “Stay Together”, while Elastica bruised the Top 20 with “Line Up” in the same month, and Inspiral Carpets had also reached the Top 20 with both “Saturn 5” and “I Want You”. Inspiral Carpets had been in the charts since “Move” reached #49 in 1989, though, and these were their 12th and 13th hits respectively. “I Want You” also featured a typically shouty vocal from Mark E Smith of Manchester legends and Peel favourites The Fall. As powerful as this combination was, it hardly felt like the future.

You need to be yourself

John Harris - The Last PartyOne man who might have taken an interest in the fortunes of Inspiral Carpets was their former roadie, Noel Gallagher. In 1988 he had auditioned, unsuccessfully, to replace Steve Holt as the band’s lead singer. Tom Hingley, whose band Too Much Texas had supported Inspiral Carpets a few times, got that gig, but the band saw something in Gallagher’s cocksure attitude and soon enough he was on tour with them. Hingley, who hadn’t known about Gallagher’s audition at the time, later described Gallagher as “a very smart, funny, street urchin: a bit like the Artful Dodger”. He lugged and delegated until 1992 when Inspiral Carpets could no longer afford to keep him on, by which time he had joined and pretty much taken charge of a band that already featured his brother Liam on vocals, along with Paul “Bonehead” Arthurs, Paul McGuigan, and a “just-about-competent drummer named Tony McCarroll”. Instilling a keen work ethic in his band-mates and creating relatively straightforward songs for them to play, he set about turning Oasis into the biggest band in the country.

You can’t be no-one else

Part of that plan was finding the right record label. At the end of May 1993, Creation records boss Alan McGee was in Glasgow to see the live debut of the Big Star inspired Sister Lovers, whose members included his good friend Debbie Turner. Oasis weren’t on the bill that night, but shared rehearsal space at the Boardwalk in Manchester with Sister Lovers and came along to blag a support slot. The way the story is generally told from that point is that a pissed up McGee heard one song and knew there and then that he was going to sign this band of cocky Mancs.

Oasis - ColumbiaOasis’ first release was “Columbia”; it was well received and even made its way onto Radio 1 despite being a limited edition promo only 12″. Their first single proper, “Supersonic”, was released in April 1994. It entered the charts at number 31, and dropped out again after just one week.

At this early stage, in the eyes of my friends Oasis was just one of those weird bands I was into, where weird means new, not very popular, not obviously destined for greatness. One day, though, in the not-too-distant future, they would be queueing with me in Manchester city center, part of an early morning snake of freezing bodies, gloved hands wrapped round cheap coffee in cheaper polystyrene cups, constantly batting back rumours that the gig was sold out, until those rumours became fact and there was no choice but to trudge home. Seeing Oasis live would have to wait.

But back to April ’94. Maybe it was tied up with being in Manchester during the ripples of the Madchester aftershock, the ruination of Factory and the corporatisation of the clubbing scene. Maybe it was all those endless 80s student nights (Club Tropicana at the Manchester Academy, anyone?) and cheesy Manchester clubs that the characters from Coronation Street would visit on a big night out in town (Royales, anyone?). Maybe it was a lack of competition in the “exciting British bands” category at the time. Whatever it was, “Supersonic” was a bolt from the blue.

No-one’s gonna tell you what I’m on about

It starts with a confident piece of no-nonsense drumming (“Meat and potatoes” as I swear I heard Tony Parsons once describe it, although I can’t find a reference to back that up) from McCarroll, met by one of Noel’s simple but incredibly evocative guitar melodies, and a slice of rhythm guitar from Bonehead that’s as dense as your granny’s fruitcake. And then Liam of the ridiculous vowel sounds chips in with the kind of lyric that I am sure is exactly the sort of thing my friends meant when they said “weird bands”.

Let’s be clear: this is drivel.

You need to be yourself
You can’t be no one else
I know a girl called Elsa
She’s into Alka Seltzer
She sniffs it through a cane on a supersonic train
She made me laugh
I got her autograph
She done it with a doctor on a helicopter
She’s sniffin in her tissue
Sellin’ the Big Issue

But what a chorus, what a racket, what a feeling (hell – more than a feeling!). And what’s more, it fades out on one of those double-tracked loopy, bendy guitar solos that I’m a complete sucker for. It’s Teenage Fanclub’s I Don’t Know (Burnage boys are mad for it remix).

I’m feeling supersonic, give me gin and tonic

Did you know that Oasis have had eight number one singles in the UK? That’s as many as The Rolling Stones, and only one below ABBA and The Spice Girls. Remarkable, really, especially when you consider the list includes songs like “The Hindu Times” and “Lyla”. You probably don’t remember those two songs all that well, because you probably stopped listening to Oasis after the musical cocaine party that was Be Here Now. Many people did the same. And yet many (enough) people went out and bought each new single as though it was actually an exciting event. Mostly, they did this during the song’s first week of release, because not one of Oasis’ eight number ones have lasted more than a week at the top. This feat of short-evity puts them in interesting company: of the artists with four or more number one UK singles only Eminem, David Guetta and One Direction have also failed to spend a second week at number one.

Oasis - Be Here Now

Perhaps more remarkable is that while some of their late career singles reached the top, the song that perhaps defines them more than any other only reached #2. And no, I don’t mean “Roll With It”, the joke-inspiring single that battled with Blur during Britpop’s commercial peak and creative nadir. Not that, but “Wonderwall”. Iconic, instantly recognisable, and tragically easy to play on an acoustic guitar, as anyone who’s ever spent a night in a music festival campsite can attest. As good as it is, though, some might say (ahem) that Oasis’ version of the song is not the best. Personally, I would put this above it:

And also this, depending on the jollity of my mood:

Brilliantly, the Mike Flowers Pops version of “Wonderwall” was released at the end of 1995, while the Oasis original was still in the chart, and very nearly stole the Christmas number one position from Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song”. I say “Oasis original”, but after it was cheekily declared on Radio 1 that the Mike Flowers Pops cover was in fact an original song from the 50s, Noel Gallagher received a transatlantic phone call from a nervous record label suit to verify that he had in fact written the song. “You bunch of dicks”, said Noel, later.

But he can smile about it now, perhaps helped by the fact that “Wonderwall” reversed its descent out of the top ten and spent a few extra weeks in the chart on the back of the success of the lounge cover. This bonus chart time might also have helped soften the blow of being beaten to the top spot in the first place by singing soldiers Robson and Jerome and their double a-side “I Believe / Up on the Roof”.

But before tomorrow

Blair GallagherWhen did it become the norm to dismiss Oasis, eh?. They did get progressively rubbisher as time went on, it’s true, but it’s sometimes hard to square the modern-day revisionism with the astonishing sales figures of (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? and Be Here Now and the scale of live events like their immense two days at Knebworth. In a way they became victims not of their own success, but the failures of others, doomed to be forever remembered for Noel’s visit to Downing Street, getting chummy with Blair and the now faintly embarrassing notion of Cool Britannia, or their part in Britpop’s downfall with the ludicrous chart face-off against Blur. There’s also backlash to feel in the form of music journalists of the day hastily recanting their 5-star-fulsomeness for Be Here Now. On its release said to have been a masterpiece; subsequently: an overblown wreck. Journalists, perhaps, were themselves too happy to indulge in some of what we might call “Gallagher’s ruin”.

I don’t listen to Oasis very often any more, but when Definitely Maybe was re-issued earlier this year I enjoyed some quality nostalgia-time with it, hearing “Slide Away” and “Cloudburst” (originally a Live Forever b-side) for the first time in a long time. It’s been a long time since I was excited by anything new from Oasis, but I can’t deny that for a while back there in the 90s I was just a little bit mad for it.

The Boo Radleys – Lazarus

1993 was the year Select magazine told the Yanks where to go. Specifically: home. Don’t turn around now, we don’t need you any more.

Because now we have Suede (who you will come to know as The London Suede, and even with that ridiculous name they’ll still be amazing), Denim (the band, not the material, which I guess you made famous, but it’s a French name, so not really yours), Saint Etienne (definitely very, very English, but, um, named after a French football club, big in the 70s), and The Auteurs (whose English lead singer, Luke Haines, doesn’t actually like England all that much, but they do have a song called “American Guitars” which we think is about dumb American music, and even though it isn’t really, and is in fact a dig at British bands lazily aping US sounds instead of finding their own voice… look, that’s not really the point. Anyway, where was I?). And then there was Pulp, who would take another year to truly hit the big time with His n Hers in 1994. Jarvis was already quotable, though:

What I’ve seen of MTV in Radio Rentals’ window I don’t like.

Fast forward 20 years and Jarvis is still Jarvis. Not so much the other two though.

So. 1993. We had the bands, we didn’t need the Yanks. Except the biggest selling single of the year was Meat Loaf’s “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That)”, and the best selling album of the year was Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell. By Meat Loaf.

Oh well, perhaps Select just meant its rebuke in the context of proper guitar bands. Sorry, “proper” guitar bands. There’s a slight problem there, too, in that the second best-selling album of the year was Automatic For The People by R.E.M., released the previous Autumn but number one on three different occasions in 1993 after the success of “Everybody Hurts” in the singles chart.

In May, Blur released their second album, the very English sounding, and very English feeling Modern Life is Rubbish. They took it to America, along with Damon Albarn’s Kinks collection, suffered apathy and homesickness and returned to dear old Blighty only to find the music press in the thrall of Brett Anderson and Suede, who picked up the inaugural Mercury Music prize, allegedly beating a very (even more so than usual) bitter Luke Haines’ Auteurs by one vote.

As ever, most of the really interesting music was taking place away from center stage, behind the curtain, in the wings, or was yet to be. Sub Sub had a massive hit this year with “Ain’t No Love (Ain’t no Use)”: three years later a studio fire would reduce their work to ashes; in 1998 they started all over again as Doves.

Giant Steps Up! (Forever)

Neither Denim nor Pulp released studio albums in 1993, while Select placed New Wave by The Auteurs at number 6 in their end of year countdown. Suede’s self-titled debut was at four, just behind The Aphex Twin, and One Dove. Topping them all was a widescreen vision of breathtaking scope and accomplishment from an unpredictable, unexpected source.

…it’s like being hypnotised in a wind tunnel

The Boo Radleys had come a long way from their debut, Ichabod & I, released on Action Records in 1990. Lo-fi, scratchy, fuzzy and infatuated with J Mascis, it barely exists at all – a limited initial run has never been followed by a reprint or reissue. Everything’s Alright Forever, released in 1992 after the band had moved to Creation Records, was largely self-produced by the band. The sound is satisfyingly dense; layers of sound wash over tracks like “Losing it (Song for Abigail)” like an unexpected studio spillage. Mostly the result of their knob-twiddling is a sort of psychedelic shoegazing, but when they plug it all in at once it’s like being hypnotised in a wind tunnel.

By the time Giant Steps was released in August ’93, Martin Carr was in full-on experimentation mode, talking of how he didn’t like to repeat an idea in the same song, let alone across the same album, and playing like he meant it. “I Hang Suspended” and “If You Want it, Take it” are exceptions that prove the rule: it’s like the Boos are telling you they could knock this sort of thing out all day long if they had to, or felt so inclined, but with a Chris Tarrant-style “Millionaire” flourish, they don’t want to give you that, they want to give you “Upon 9th and Fairchild” and a howling guitar, and a song that veers from dub to post-punk and back again. Or how about a melody and arrangement that could be The Kinks, could be The Beatles, and manages to mix wailing feedback with what I assume is a clarinet. All this variety, all this experimentation could go horribly wrong in less skilled hands, but Carr knows when to hold back and let the horns and harmonies take over, and for the most part the patchwork pieces are strong enough that a more bombastic band would have stretched them into an epic triple album. As it was, Giant Steps was almost too much to take in at the time. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if it was a mild letdown after all the expectation, or the most brilliantly, thrillingly ambitious album of its day.

The only certain disappointment in Giant Steps is the song that should have been the album’s peak, and which was the song that had got me so worked up for the album in the first place. Near the end of 1992, The Boo Radleys released a single, “Lazarus”, that was a world away from the layered obfuscation of Everything’s Alright Forever. 6 minutes long and change, it’s eerie, spacey, and builds tension through a thrilling three minute intro. An organ roll ushers in the horns, and suddenly all the music in the world is happening at once. And then – brilliantly – they cut the switch almost immediately for an acoustic guitar, slightly distorted vocals and “ba-baa” Beach Boys harmonies.

I… I must be losing my mind

They repeat the loud / quiet pattern a couple of times and then that’s it, all gone, see you next time. It’s devastatingly simple. And perhaps it’s a description I hook out too easily, but it’s perfect.

On Giant Steps, “Lazarus” appears half-way through side two, just sort of quietly slotted in there between “Take The Time Around” and “One is For” like it’s nothing special. The brooding menace of the first part of the intro from the single version is gone, and the rest of the intro gets an overdub featuring way too much left-to-right-channel then right-to-left-channel swishing.

The thing of it is, even with all that tampering, it’s still perfect.

The House of Love – Feel

1992 was a year of unnecessary suffering and repeated misfortune. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was number one. Again. Stars by Simply Red was the bestselling album in the UK. Again. The Tories won a general election. Again. England flunked an international football tournament. Again.

And The House of Love released an album of untouchably beautiful guitar music, and the world wouldn’t listen.

Again, and again, and thrice again.

The House of Love - The House of LoveHaving twice managed to miss the Top 40 by just one place in 1989 with “Never” and “I Don’t Know Why I Love You”, in 1991 The House of Love released “Girl With The Loneliest Eyes” as a teaser for the forthcoming album Babe Rainbow. It was a #58 smash. Then, in 1992 The House of Love exceeded themselves by missing out three more times. Like a pathetic drunk on a bungee run, each time they tried to score a hit they just ended up further away than before. “Feel” reached #45, “You Don’t Understand” gave up at #46, and finally “Crush Me” could go no higher than #67.

Sometimes you crush me
Sometimes words will not deny
that you crush me
Yeah, yeah, yeah
Sometimes you crush me

Meanwhile, Melody Maker were making cover stars of Suede before they’d even released their debut single “The Drowners”, declaring them “The best new band in Britain” in April. It was all wrong. The House of Love knew how it felt to be pitched as the next big thing, signing to Fontana for big bucks (£400,000 was the rumoured figure) after their perfect self-titled debut album for Creation. Fontana, perhaps wanting a quick return on at least some of the outlay, shoved the band straight into the studio. The result was “Never”, and we already know how well that charted.

At twenty-five and sick of life

The unhappy departure of guitarist Terry Bickers – abandoned mid-tour, dumped from the tour bus dropped at a train station – seemed a mere distraction when a new version of “Shine On” made the Top 40. It was followed by a well-received second album, and single “The Beatles and the Stones”, charting lead singer Guy Chadwick’s relationship with the bands, and his formative years (“The Beatles and the Stones / made it good to be alone”) made it two from two when it reached #36.

Somewhere along the line, though, the yarn began to unravel. Articles about the musical talent turned were replaced by articles about the band’s hedonistic lifestyle and talent for self-destruction. Drugs and money were both reputedly being burnt backstage. Soon the band started to slip from the limelight; a sporadically brilliant compilation of previously unreleased material appeared, but by the time Babe Rainbow was released in 1992, madchester had risen, exploded and fallen, and suddenly The House of Love’s 60s influences were out. Suede’s brash sense of 70s glam was more the people’s speed.

My theme is: lose the plot
fuck around and drink a lot

The House of Love - Babe Rainbow

Babe Rainbow was a beautiful creation. It took its name from a piece by Peter Blake (his efforts on a certain Beatles album are slightly better known), which appeared on the album’s cover, and tempered its moods of despair and decay with shining guitar sounds and mellow Guy Chadwick vocals. On its release, Babe Rainbow barely dented the Top 40 before shuffling off to become one of pop’s great lost albums. Despite the melancholic splendour of “The Girl with the Loneliest Eyes”, the anthemic “Feel”, and the collapsing beauty of “Yer Eyes”, no-one seemed particularly interested. Even Terry Bickers probably paid it no mind, at least until he heard Guy Chadwick say the band didn’t miss him because Chadwick had played 90% of the guitar parts anyway. By now, though, Bickers was a member of Levitation, whose album Need For Not was released on May 4th. And, yes, they did the Star Wars pun thing.

A final House of Love studio album, Audience With The Mind was recorded in a lightning-fast 12 days, and was released to decent applause if not exactly fulsome praise. Tracks included a follow-up to Shine On, called “Shining On”, and “Into The Tunnel” – an eight-minute epic that Chadwick had spent the best part of a decade working on. It sold about 4 copies. It was to be an anticlimactic end for a band that had once been touted as the new U2.

Shining On

Guy Chadwick went on to form The Madonnas, a band that released precisely no albums or singles, although they did play live at least once, supporting The Cranberries in Manchester. I know this because I was there. Chadwick then embarked on a brief solo career, with the release of Lazy, soft and slow, a down-tempo collection of love-adorned ballads variously described as “sleep-inducingly samey” (Uncut, March 1998), or “Masterfully understated stuff from a much missed and quietly inspirational maverick” (MOJO, March 1998).

The House of Love - She Paints Words in RedThen, suddenly, gloriously, happily, The House of Love reformed, Chadwick and Bickers burying the hatchet to record and tour together. The comeback didn’t disappoint: old songs like “Christine”, “Love in a Car” and “Hope” still sounded magnificent live; new album, Days Run Away, was the sound of a band released from the pressure of expectation, wiser than before, but with the same wicked way with a melody. In 2013, The House of Love released a sixth album, She Paints Words in Red. Listening to it doesn’t recapture the excitement of those early albums, but it’s magical in its own way: it’s just enough to know The House of Love are still around, despite everything.

Teenage Fanclub – Star Sign

This is where picking a single song to represent a year starts to get tricky. 1991 wasn’t where everything changed for me, but it’s a time defined by discoveries, some more exciting than others. By far the most obvious choice to represent this year would be R.E.M.; I fell in love with “Losing My Religion” and Out of Time, and spent most of the rest of the year in awed obsession, hoovering up their entire back catalogue while I waited for the remarkable, incredible Automatic for the People to be released.

1991 was a time of looking in all directions before choosing a road. One day in September I bought three albums that summed up my search: On Every Street by Dire Straits, Into the Great Wide Open by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, and Leisure by Blur. Something old, something something, something new. Which musical path to take? In the end I chose the road less travelled. Perhaps just to get a way from the banality of life, perhaps to show what a remarkable thinking iconoclast I was, or perhaps because 1991 was the year pop finally gave up and stopped trying to keep me interested.

It was a year of greatest hits, re-issues, novelties, musicals: didn’t anyone care any more? Bryan Adams was number one for the whole of the summer (just you keep your British weather jokes to yourself, all right?) and for a while it looked like he would steal Autumn from us too. 16 weeks at the top – who was out there buying (Everything I do) I do it for You after four months? “Well, it’s just been such a busy summer, I haven’t had time…”

It took the release of U2’s first single in over two years, “The Fly”, to bring interesting back, but then suddenly Vic Reeves and The Wonder Stuff were number one with “Dizzy”, completing a hat-trick of chart-topping comedians for the year after The Simpsons (“Do The Bartman”, 3 weeks) and Hale & Pace (“The Stonk”, 1 week). The bestselling singles of 1991 also included “Any Dream Will Do”, “It’s in His Kiss (The Shoop Shoop song)”, and “I’m Too Sexy”. After Freddie Mercury’s death in November, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was re-released and became the year’s second biggest selling single.

Live and Unreleased

Various Artists - Live and UnreleasedAs Queen were on the verge of topping both the album and singles charts at the end of 1991, the latest issue of Vox magazine was published. Attached to that December 1991 issue was a free cassette – Live and Unreleased – featuring 14 exclusive tracks from the BBC Radio 1 Mark Goodier show. Alongside less remembered names like The Dylans, Milltown Brothers, Paris Angels and Spirea X, the last track on the tape was a stunning version of “Everything Flows”, a track from Teenage Fanclub’s first album, A Catholic Education. In contrast to the relatively leaden album version, it rips along, and Raymond McGinley’s guitar solos (if you can call them that) are note perfect.

Bandwagonesque

Teenage Fanclub’s second album, Bandwagonesque, was released in November 1991, and although it hasn’t been representative of the band’s sound for a long time, it is still what I think of first when I hear their name. At this time the back pages of Melody Maker and NME were your passport to a world of gig listings, extra-special import albums, and all the band merchandise you could possibly, conceivably lust after. Basically, t-shirts and posters, really. You sent off your postal order and within mere weeks a cardboard tube would find its way to you containing, say, album artwork from the latest Tom Petty release, or a stupidly big image of Michael Stipe’s shadowed, downcast face from the cover of Losing My Religion. Or even a Teenage Fanclub Bandwagonesque tour poster, the only disappointing aspect of which is the thought that Geffen apparently paid Gene Simmons because of a trademark he held in the image of a moneybag with a dollar sign on it.

Teenage Fanclub - Bandwagonesque

It’s an album that is proud to show off its influences, in particular Alex Chilton and Big Star, and if that makes it in any way regressive or unoriginal, well, frankly who cares? It starts with the opening three-part masterpiece “The Concept” (I’d give anything for this to be as well known as Bohemian Rhapsody), and finishes with the instrumental “Is This Music?”, which I seem to recall soundtracking the Goal of the Month competition on Match of the Day for a while. Between these two you’ll find various flavours of perfection: “Alcoholiday” is all glam stomp and harmonies, and “I Don’t Know” contains a guitar line that will never be bettered. Seriously, stop trying, put down your instruments, this game’s been won already.

Then there’s “What You Do To Me”. A second shy of two minutes, it’s short, sweet, and succulent – “I know, I can’t believe / there’s something about you got me down on my knees” – and if I once heard it compared to Status Quo, I’ll just attribute that to the fact that the accuser (a known Bryan Adams fan) must have had them on his mind after watching them accept their Outstanding Contribution to Music Award at the Brits that year.

“Star Sign” is perhaps the best example of their slacker rhythm and combined guitars. It’s essentially Big Star with long hair (incidentally the name of a Teenage Fanclub track from the b-side of The Concept that shares some common DNA with Star Sign) and a sudden and surprisingly easy-going approach to life. with a lyric offering a casual dismissal of superstitious beliefs and behaviours

After Bandwagonesque came the weedier Thirteen, cut from more transparent cloth but sporting much the same pattern. Grand Prix hinted at what a comfortable-again Teenage Fanclub were capable of, and with Songs From Northern Britain they once again proved themselves masters of melody and harmony. All of these albums have spawned great singles, only one of which, somewhat surprisingly, made the Top 20 (“Ain’t That Enough” reached #17 in 1997).

To some, 1991 was all about Nevermind. Spin magazine famously chose Bandwagonesque as its number one album for the year, though, and even as they try to backtrack from that bold decision and engage in some retrospective herd-following, it’s worth remembering that they didn’t even have Nevermind in second place that year. It was actually third, behind Out of Time. Personally I’m impressed they got the order so spot on first time.

The Charlatans – Sproston Green

A new decade
The radio plays the sounds we made
And everything seems to feel just right

So sang Richard Ashcroft on The Verve‘s song “A New Decade”, released in, er… 1995.

A new decade: a time of excitement, anticipation of what might be. But also a time of looking back. Thinking of what might have been. “They’re selling hippy wigs in Woolworths” lamented Danny as his decade of fug reached a close at the end of Withnail & I.

It’s the end of an era.

Madchester was looking good in the late 80s. In the city that had already served up a generous helping of seminal 80s indie – Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, The Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses – everyone was high on… I dunno I was too young for all that, and anyway with my customary timing didn’t get to the party until it was down to its last bulb… but high on something, let’s say. No matter how underground you start, get high enough and someone will notice. Clubs started closing, authorities starting taking dim views, and didn’t like what they found in murky corners. By the mid-90s, a Conservative government clinging, terrified, to the precipice of power (a MORI poll in August had them 33 points behind Labour), brought in the “Turn that racket down, don’t you lot have homes to go to?” act, which effectively banned young people from cheering themselves up with illegal highs and “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” (aka rave).

The Stone Roses still hadn’t released a second album. The Happy Mondays were probably still crashing golf carts on Barbados.

The Charlatans – probably the best Manchester band not to actually come from Manchester – had released three albums by mid 1994. The run started with Some Friendly, which went straight in at number one in the album chart. The pressure, or the glory, or something must have gone to their heads by the time they went back into the studio to record its follow-up, the mostly mediocre Between 10th and 11th, but partial redemption came in the form of 1994’s Up to Our Hips.

Two tracks from Some Friendly found their way onto two 1990 compilation albums of very different quality, both of which found their way into my music collection. Let’s get the less good of the two out of the way first.

Rhymes with Hit Pack

The Hit Pack was a 1990 compilation album that moves from the sublime to the utterly ridiculous in 24 chart hits. 24 because I bought the luxury cassette version with its extra tracks, and not the CD version, which was limited to 21. It starts promisingly: Deee-Lite‘s “Groove is in the Heart” takes Herbie Hancock‘s Bring Down the Birds and makes popsicles out of its bass riff. It’s largely a downhill journey from there, with everyone’s second favourite Black Box track, Fantasy, and everyone’s second favourite SNAP! track, Mary Had a Little Boy starting the ride.

Various Artists - The Hit Pack

The Hit Pack meanders around for the rest of its tracklisting without settling on any genre. I say meanders, but the transition from 808 State (“Cubik”) to Aztec Camera (“Good Morning Britain”) is not as bucolic as all that, while following “Show Me Heaven” by Maria McKee with Berlin‘s “Take My Breath Away” is as much of a transition as a non-committal step forward in quicksand. The standout track was “Then” by The Charlatans, with its baggy backbeat and Tim Burgess singing just outside the intelligible range of my tin ear for lyrics (the opening line is “I want to bomb your submarines”, apparently).

The worst is saved for last, however, with the unspeakably dismal “Fog on the Tyne (revisited)” by Gazza & Lindisfarne.

Skool Daze

Various Artists - Happy Daze

Let’s talk Happy Daze (Volume 1) before I start feeling retrospectively violent. In the words of Gary Crowley’s liner notes:

We feel it sums up the year the Indie Guitar Pop finally left the bedroom, hooked up with some strident dance grooves and had one hell of a bender / night out!

Not a bad summation. Apart from the curious selection of “Hippy Chick” by Soho, and the inclusion of a remix of “Circle Square” by The Wonder Stuff, it is for the most part a solidly danceable indie-dance collection. At the time it was my introduction to Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine (“Sheriff Fatman”), Ride (“Taste”), and the splendidly named New Fast Automatic Daffodils (“Big”). The Charlatans track on offer was “The Only One I Know”, which lifted lyrics from The Byrds’ “Everybody’s Been Burned” and swirled them around in a big baggy Hammond organ soup, with a strong bassline for a ladle.

I Know I’m Too Necessary

“Sproston Green” is the last track on Some Friendly, and was said to be lead singer Tim Burgess‘ favourite Charlatans song at the time. It’s the kind of song that sits up and begs to be played at a neighbour or parent-offending volume, and that’s generally how I listened to it. It’s one long groove driven by sustained chords and that insistent Hammond. Or, in the words Ian Gittins of The Guardian, it is “leaden psychedelia”. Listen to either the album version here, or the live version back up at the top of this page, and make your own mind up.

http://youtu.be/GgyS74IKxAE