Monday, 15 May 2017

Volume 16 Side 3 - Verve, Spiritualized, Pulp, The Jennifers (Supergrass), Spectrum

1. Verve - She's A Superstar (Hut)

While I slightly struggled with Verve initially, "She's A Superstar" was an enormous, towering single which emerged very early in their careers. Riddled with scaling riffs, chiming, music box guitar elements buried deep in the mix, and rumbling basslines, it seeps mood and atmosphere rather than clubbing you around the head with nagging hooks.

Unfortunately, if the finger of suspicion can be pointed at any band in particular for starting the lazy lyrical tropes of Dadrock, it's probably Ashcroft and company. "She climbs so high/ I don't know why", sings yer man airily and lazily, possibly inspiring the by-numbers lyricism of Oasis and their many minions along the way.

Still, "She's A Superstar" scales, swoops and turns at graceful angles like a majestic bird - even if Richard Ashcroft had contributed no lyrics at all and this had been an "Albatross" styled instrumental, it would be hard not to be impressed by it. It's a Verve track you won't hear often on adult rock or alternative stations, but really, for me it was the first sign that some of the hype was possibly justified.

2. Spiritualized - Medication (Dedicated)

Spiritualized were getting more sophisticated too, moving on from being blissed-out underground hippies with a mighty fine lightshow, to creating songs with tight, ambitious and occasionally almost unwieldy arrangements. Their epic and absurdly long single "Feels So Sad" acted as evidence to listeners that they weren't afraid of a challenge, and even if that particular attempt was perhaps too bloated for its own good, it was clear that they had an intent to be more than just an indie group.

"Medication" is a moody and bitter pean to drug addiction which is filled to the brim with dizzy jazzy riffs, eerie organ work, and rushing guitar noises. It's a single that sounds impressive rather than having much impact emotionally - it's difficult not to be taken in by its ambition and conviction initially, but I suspect I'm not alone in saying that I didn't end up listening to it much after 1992 waved goodbye. But for anyone looking for evidence that Jason Pierce had moved beyond his Spacemen 3 roots and was now creating finely sculpted and detailed work rather than the lo-fi psychedelic druggy drones of yore, it was here, and things would only get better.

3. Pulp - Babies (Gift)

Pulp had been around for over a decade by this point, and could actually have featured on Indie Top 20 Volume One had Beechwood been inclined (1986's macabre "Little Girl (With Blue Eyes)" would have been a cracking addition to that cassette, actually). But they were probably never close to being in the running. Pulp were very much a sideshow act in Indiepop's boom years, churning out dark, morbid and slightly twisted songs with claustrophobic, under-produced atmospheres to very select audiences. While I don't count myself among the fans who will argue that every LP the band has ever recorded is great, their debut 1981 Peel Session contains the amazing "Wishful Thinking" (the most under-appreciated Pulp track ever?), the 1983 debut LP "It" is uneven but worthy, and 1992's delayed "Separations" LP is riddled with cheap synthesiser squelches and early eighties dancefloor rhythms as well as Scott Walker-esque patches of melodrama, and is probably their finest pre-fame effort. Only 1987's "Freaks" is a completely undercooked and joyless experience.

Pulp's time had been by no means wasted, but most bands would have packed up before "Babies", going off to get proper jobs and raise families and being satisfied with having a footnote in the world of eighties British indie. The press were not all entirely welcoming by this point. When the group jumped ship from Fire Records (who they felt didn't have their best interests at heart) to Warp's subsidiary label Gift, this was greeted by some journalists with extreme scepticism. The NME were heard to make an off-the-cuff complaint that if those C86 chancers Pulp were being labelled as bright hopes, then something had gone truly, horribly wrong with British music. Others, however, were wowed by Pulp's increasingly energetic live shows, and charmed by Jarvis Cocker's eccentric and charismatic on-stage demeanour.

By this point, they even had a shit-hot Canadian manager who nonetheless didn't seem to quite understand how to best market the group. She wandered around talking to people of influence telling them that she had "the next Right Said Fred" on her hands. Clearly, even at this point, things weren't entirely locking into place.

Thank God for the songs, then, which by now were becoming truly staggering. "Babies" is one of their finest ever singles, and one the marvellous blog "Freaks, Mis-Shapes, Weeds" does a great job of unpacking (though I agree with the statement that it's hard to critically dissect and analyse something so effervescent and enjoyable). The foundation of an incredibly simple, if faintly unusual, two chord riff acts as the basis for all kinds of instrumental diversions for the group, from Candida's synthesiser squelches to twanging guitars and ambient interludes, to the downright euphoric ending... if Pulp described themselves as a "garage band" in the mid-eighties, they had travelled far beyond that now, and were as fussy (if not fussier) than Verve and Spiritualized... except they were playing with shaggy dog story lyrics and pop hooks, not scaling epic rock mountains. Pulp at this point were about smalltown stories and awkward situations and sex, rather than drugs and astral flying.

"Babies" would become the hit it was always supposed to be when reissued in 1994 by Island Records. For now, though, it was a curio, a marvellous single which did get some radio and television exposure - the fact it ended up on "The ITV Chart Show" marked an enormous leap forward - but wasn't really heard as often as you might suspect in 1992. I was a reasonably regular indie/ alternative clubber and gig-goer at this point, and I heard it played by a DJ once, at a small bar called Saks in Southend. Myself and a few friends strode on to the dancefloor to give the DJ our vote of confidence while almost everybody else ignored it. It was a sublime single, and everybody who liked "Babies" wanted to believe that Pulp might finally enter the mainstream... but the odds seemed so frighteningly long at this point.

4. The Jennifers - Just Got Back Today (Nude)

Another Britpop big name checks into "Indie Top 20" incredibly early. At the nucleus of this group were Danny Goffey and Gaz Coombes, both of whom would later form Supergrass. At this point, though, they hadn't even finished school, but after hometime and at the weekends their lives were consumed by the very young indie group The Jennifers.

"Just Got Back Today" sold rather poorly and it's somewhat miraculous it ended up being documented on "Indie Top 20" - I suspect that Nude Records approached Beechwood with a deal where they would pick up the license to a Suede track at a reasonable price if this effort was also guaranteed a place in the track listing.

Nonetheless, you can hear bags of promise in this, and while there's absolutely no evidence of Supergrass at their most turbo-charged, it does sound exactly like one of the group's maudlin moments. A wailing harmonica joins hands with a despairing vocal line, and the band sound heartbroken beyond their years. It's not a perfect track by any means, though. The chorus is rather too laissez faire for its own good, and the ending is clumsy and inconclusive, but given how downright young the group were, it's staggering to hear how developed they already were. This mood and sound would recur throughout Supergrass's career, from the rainy Sunday evening loneliness of "Late In The Day" to most of 2005's understated and under-rated "Road To Rouen" (so much so that I once actually padded my personal CD Rom copy of that LP out with "Just Got Back Today" as a bonus track, feeling that it acted as a sweet, innocent echo back to their early days).

Neither Danny or Gaz were quite ready for the big-time yet, but there's enough here to help you understand how some critics and record label bosses were already excited. In a couple of years time, they would be enormous news.

5. Spectrum - True Love Will Find You In The End (Silvertone)

If Jason Pearce left Spacemen 3 to scale musical mountains, it was starting to become fairly obvious that Pete Kember was quite happy to remain a minimalist. The more time progressed, the harder it was becoming to imagine them ever having been in the same group together.

"True Love..." is a shimmering and simple cover of a naive and hopeful Daniel Johnston track. If Johnston's original is childlike and sounds in danger of toppling over at any second, the Spectrum version is tight and psychedelically inclined, with ringing bells, wailing guitars, and Christmassy glitter toppling all over the well-meant intentions of the original. It manages to make the song sound both still more childlike, and also more stately.

For all that, it respects the simplicity of the original, and manages to make it sound like a hymn to the possibilities of life-long partnerships. There have been moments in my life where I've scoffed and even groaned at the sentiments in this song, but as a middle-aged man I've now come to appreciate that there was some wisdom in it after all.

1 comment:

  1. My favourite volume of the third wave. Remember the lack of momentum for Babies in '92. Top tune.